Food insecurity and climate change are, more than ever, the two major global challenges humanity is facing, and climate change is increasingly perceived as one of the greatest challenges for food security.
From 6 to 18 November 2022, the 27th Conference of the Parties (COP27) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)1 was hosted by the Government of the Arab Republic of Egypt, in Sharm El-Sheikh.
With smallholder farmers producing around a third of the world’s food, climate change has considerable implications for global food security. Therefore, there is an urgent need to support communities — and the farmers who feed them — who are hit hardest and fastest by climate change and food production and agriculture must have an equal seat and voice at the climate-change- debate table, just like the energy or transportation sector do.
According to the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report, more than 30 percent of global crop and livestock areas could become climatically unsuitable by 2100, in the worst-case climate scenario.
Different members of the HLPE-FSN Steering Committee participated in COP27 to address the interlinked climate and food crises, calling attention to the urgent need for action at all levels, starting with local communities and extending up to global organizations.
“Reaching women with climate resilience strategies in Africa and Asia” was the topic of an official side event organized by the CGIAR GENDER Impact Platform and its partners, at the Sharm el-Sheikh Climate Change Conference, which discussed how to improve women’s access to climate resilience strategies.
Women and girls are essential and powerful players to address the climate and food crises. But they remain largely undervalued and underestimated with limited access to resources, training and technology, necessary for efficient food production as well as for effective adaptation to the impacts of climate change.
During the event, William G. Moseley, DeWitt Wallace Professor of Geography, Director of the Program for Food, Agriculture and Society at Macalester College and member of the Steering Committee of the CFS HLPE-FSN, underscored that while we want women farmers to successfully adapt to climate change, we must also understand that farmers’ agency is situated, that is, their ability to adapt is often mediated by broader structural forces.
The expert explained that by some estimates, women produce 70% of the food crops in the African context. While some scholars dispute this figure, women are undoubtedly central players in African agriculture. Despite their prominent role in African food systems, women struggle to secure access to the land, labour and inputs needed for agricultural production.
In particular, he analyzed the use of herbicides by female African farmers and the factors that may be driving their use and how the relative power of women to control labour within their households influences their adoption of herbicides as a labour-saving technology.
Based on semi-structured interviews with female farmers in Burkina Faso in the June-July period of 2019, Moseley’s team found that 92% of women in the chosen sample used herbicides in all or some of their own fields (Moseley and Pessereau 2022). This figure is much higher than others have reported for women farmers in the region in the past. The majority of women used herbicides in all of their fields, while five percent of women only sprayed fields with more remunerative crops, such as rice or maize rather than peanuts or cowpeas, due to lack of sufficient funds
Moseley’s team explains this shift as primarily driven by four factors operating at different scales. (1) The rise of generic herbicide production in India and China since the early 2000s means that this labour-saving technology is increasingly affordable in West African markets. (2) Young people are leaving agriculture as it becomes more vulnerable under fluctuating rainfall patterns and climate change, departing for other economic activities. (3) Artisanal gold production has siphoned labour away from farming systems across West Africa, further constraining female farmers’ access to labour. (4) Women have limited control over household labour and thus face serious labour constraints in their own farming efforts. While increasing herbicide use is a rational response to labour constraints, it also contributes to growing health risks as well as the spread of herbicide-resistant weeds.
Moseley emphasized how the majority of women they interviewed indicated that the increasing availability and affordability of herbicides played a big role in their decision to adopt herbicides. He also highlighted that most women do not have secure customary land tenure rights but must work through a male relative to get access to land. The one exception to this is rice fields in some areas where women hold the customary rights and pass them down from mother to daughter.
In most cases, women have men apply the herbicides on their fields. Interviewees suggested that this had a lot to do with gender norms. Although, when asked why they do not apply herbicides themselves, 10% of women cited health risks, whether for themselves or for infants they nursed or carried on their backs throughout the day. These concerns are not unfounded as there are a number of documented health risks associated with herbicide use, including cancer and endocrine disruption.
Several women noted how the backpack for spraying often leaks onto their backs and they were afraid that this contact with the product would get their infants sick, although one woman who applies herbicides herself said that she set her child down while spraying. Even when not actively carrying their children, women worry that spraying herbicides could contaminate their breastmilk and impact the child through nursing.
Women farmers’ adoption of herbicides is facilitated by easier access to these chemicals at the village level and at price points that make them competitive with hiring labour to do manual weeding. In all five villages where Moseley conducted surveys, herbicides were easily found with two to three informal vendors per village. The onset of generic production of herbicides in the global South is a large reason for the lower cost of herbicides at the village level, coupled with a regional system that facilitates the importation of herbicides.
Some scholars have argued that pesticides cycle through the global marketplace in a predictable pattern. At first these are sold on patent at a relatively high price point. As they go off patent, and as they become less effective because of pesticide resistance, production shifts to generic producers who offer a lower price point to poorer farmers in areas of the world where pests and weeds have yet to develop a resistance to the pesticide. Glyphosate seems to be following this pattern, with Africa being one of the last markets for the chemical before it becomes completely obsolete.
A gendered perspective shows how this same cycle continues within communities, as male farmers often have greater means to adopt these chemicals initially, and then as prices decline further, these as more widely adopted with female farmers.
In conclusion, while the upsurge of women farmers’ use of herbicides is economically rationale and helps resolve the nettlesome problem of climate change induced labour constraints in African farming systems, further exacerbated by women’s limited power to commandeer household labour, this upsurge in herbicide use does present public health concerns. Previous studies have shown that there are a number of documented health risks associated with herbicide use, including cancer, harm to unborn children and endocrine disruption.
Hence, “a number of policy responses should be considered by African governments, regional bodies (like CILS) as well as international organizations such as the WHO and FAO”, Moseley concluded. First, while the CILS regional system facilitates the certification of pesticides for use in member states, this also means that pesticide producers may focus their efforts on one member state and obfuscate health risks in order to break into this regional market. A more rigorous vetting of these chemicals is needed in order to mitigate health risks. Second, it is also important to recognize the very real labour constraints faced by women farmers. Developing alternative, low cost approaches to weed control, and privileging women farmers in extension efforts, is critical. There are, for example, a number of agroecological methods that could be further developed to tackle weed problems and address labour constraints.
COP27 concluded on 20 November 2022 with a breakthrough agreement to provide “loss and damage” funding for vulnerable countries hit hard by climate disasters, along with a package of decisions and – for the first time – food was formally included in the agreement, through the Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture (KJWA).
The discussions highlighted solutions – on themes including food security, vulnerable communities and “just transition” – to chart a path to overcome climate challenges. The HLPE-FSN warmly welcomes that financing loss-and-damage is being addressed in the UNFCCC process and that food security and nutrition issues are gaining weight, together with the notion of “just transition”.
Towards COP28 in Dubai in December 2023, the HLPE-FSN will strive to contribute to the UNFCCC community’s efforts to empower all stakeholders to engage in climate action and make sure food security is properly addressed as a human right.
1 The multidimensional impact of climate change on life in our planet is being studied in detail by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and is also being discussed at annual meetings of the Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) adopted at Rio de Janeiro in 1992.
Bill Moseley is a member of the Steering Committee of the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE-FSN) since 2022.