Feminist agroecology for food sovereignty

By Marta Soler, Marta Rivera and Irene García Roces

Food sovereignty, agroecology and feminism are concepts that, taken together, provide a new and critical perspective on food and farming. This perspective can help us to understand the world and push us into action. But what exactly do these concepts mean?

Shepherdess in the region of Mushki, Georgia. Photo: Antoine Bruy.
From the exhibition ‘We Feed The World’.

Food sovereignty, agroecology and feminism are grand words that we associate with complex and ongoing political struggles and projects. Some of these form part of our daily lives, and some take place farther away. Regardless, they represent numerous and diverse political proposals that are shaped by who defines them, and by where and how they are taking place. They are even more numerous and diverse when they are joined together, therefore we talk about them in the plural: food sovereignties, agroecologies and feminisms.

Do these three political struggles easily coexist? What is certain is that all too often they collide with the cruel realities that we encounter on a day-to-day basis. We aspire to food sovereignty through a feminist agroecology, but we live surrounded by industrialised agriculture and globalised food in a capitalist and patriarchal world. Many of us have day jobs and precarious lives and have to choose between products that may not be the most just or ecological, buying groceries from the most affordable supermarket, and spending minimum time in the kitchen because it doesn’t give us life. These are the contradictions we live in.

How feminist is food sovereignty?

The term ‘food sovereignty’ was born from La Vía Campesina as an alternative political proposal to agri-food globalisation. It is formulated as the right of peoples to decide and control their food autonomously through peasant agroecology.

Agroecology is an alternative to the green revolution that recovers and updates traditional knowledge, manages biodiversity with wisdom and art, and makes food production more ecological and social. And agroecology is for and by peasants; the knowledge and know-how of those who grow, raise and produce food creates autonomy for farmers.

We cannot assume that food sovereignty and peasant agroecology are already feminist in and of themselves.  

Social justice, both for those who produce food and for those who consume it, has always been at the heart of food sovereignty. We might think, therefore, that gender equality is also implicitly present, and that food sovereignty and, by extension, peasant agroecology are feminist. However, the women of La Vía Campesina needed to create their own assembly within the organisation to fight for their participation and to ensure that feminism was taken up as everyone’s issue.

Gender ineqalities continue to be well established in the agri-food world: in fields, families and kitchens around the world. We cannot, therefore, assume that food sovereignty and peasant agroecology are already feminist in and of themselves.  

The ‘Walled Garden’ vegetable farm in the Netherlands is run by women.
Photo: De Ommuurde Tuin

The patriarchal bias of agroecology and food sovereignty

The conquest of an agroecological, sovereign and feminist diet for our daily lives will not be easy. Since patriarchy permeates our world and guides our way of life, we run the risk of building a patriarchal food sovereignty. Agroecology is a clear example of this.

The agroecological approach arose in academia to analyse and transform industrialised agriculture, but it does so from an androcentric perspective. It ignores gender issues and supports analysis in asexual categories (agroecosystem, farm, biodiversity …) or in categories loaded with unequal relationships of gender that have been ignored (family, peasantry, community …). Agroecology idealises family farming, the culture of rural communities and culinary knowledge without questioning the deeply unequal gender relations that are hiding in families, communities and kitchens.

Agroecology idealises family farming, the culture of rural communities and culinary knowledge without questioning the deeply unequal gender relations that hide in families, communities and kitchens.

This androcentric bias of academic agroecology is also present in its practical construction. Frequently, when a technician or researcher (even a female) goes to visit a farm, he or she seeks or agrees to speak exclusively with ‘the head of the family’. Women, in most cases, are invisible or considered as a ‘help’ and not as active protagonists of the agroecological transition. The technician almost always ignores the gender division of labor. She or he does not ask who does what, with what recognition or under what conditions, nor does (s)he take into account the opinions, needs and work of women.

We are happy when peasant women gain prominence in agroecology, production or marketing, but do we wonder what work overload they suffer in order to make these achievements? Have they managed to negotiate the distribution of household chores so as not to die trying to participate in public and economic life?

Not in all agroecological farms, decision making includes men and women. And when the agroecological markets are full of women buying food, it seems normal and we do not question who will decide on healthy menus or who will cook those rich meals with fresh foods that imply hours of elaboration. Sometimes, we fall into the trap of wanting to make the work of women visible and end up glorifying traditional feminine responsibilities without claiming fair retribution and distribution of labour. 

An agroecology that guarantees a life worth living

Today it is very difficult to live in the countryside. Many agroecological projects fail because they involve a lot of precariousness as a result of a lack of income and the excessive workload involved.

In most cases, we do not give importance to issues such as economic viability. In practice, this means getting realistic agroecological projects going that generate decent remuneration and allow for living in dignity while working in the field. The prevalent job insecurity (the lack of decent wages, benefits, labour rights, heavy workloads …) mainly affects women who, in addition to paid work, have to engage in care taking, and also in agroecological initiatives.

A feminist agroecology must question 1) how to build viable agroecological proposals that collectivise care work and 2) how to obtain both a decent income for the peasantry and affordable prices for low income consumers.

We are all contaminated by machismo and reproduce violence, power relations, and gender roles. Do you know how to handle conflicts and emotions in agroecological projects? Indeed, patriarchal relations are present both in the rural world and in the urban world and, of course, also in agroecological initiatives. Realising and acting on this implies making it a priority to constantly ask and rethink how to deal with these relationships and this violence in the day to day lives of our struggles.

Woman carrying food in Burkina Faso. Photo: Andrew Esiebo.
From the exhibition ‘We Feed The World’.

What to do

We cannot resist throwing some ideas out about what to do, although we are aware that both diagnoses and proposals for action and change must be collectively constructed from the ground up.

>Distribute the work

We think that a first step is to recognise, explain and face the fact that the jobs and roles that women have traditionally performed both in the countryside and in the kitchens, in homes, in families, in communities and in the territories are seen to have less value than the roles that men play. Socially valuing the work of women must also involve an equal distribution of the work they do, making care-giving a collective responsibility of the whole society, and not exclusively of women. This proposal implies, therefore, a democratisation of care work. 

>Question power relations

We believe that a second essential step is to question power relations within the family and break the idealisation of the ‘peasant family’ in order to confront and modify the patriarchal relations within this institution.

We must question power relations within the family and break the idealisation of the ‘peasant family’.

A feminist agroecological transition must go hand in hand with changes in relationships and roles between men and women in homes, building new forms of coexistence. This, together with the equal distribution of care work, would, in turn, allow women to occupy the spaces mostly represented by men.

>Develop networks

We consider that a third step is to work to strengthen and develop our networks among and collaboration with individuals and groups. This will help to address the lack of time that we face as a result of ‘productivist rhythms’- both in caring for children or other people, and in farming. Carrying out joint planning, collaborating and engaging in collective work can facilitate care-giving and participation in community life. This can take various forms: cooking, organising a diet adapted to each season, being in a consumer group or campaigning to incorporate organic food in school canteens. This can save time to, for example, conserve seeds, cultivate the garden, take care of animals or process food, without having to increase our working hours or exploit ourselves.

Ecofeminisms and decolonial feminisms are proposing to put food at the center of our socio-political organisation, displacing the current centrality of the markets.

Ecofeminisms and decolonial feminisms are proposals to redefine and reorient the praxis of agroecology and food sovereignty. They place food at the center of our socio-political organisation. This implies giving peasant work as well as domestic work an economic and cultural centrality in our society, by considering these essential for life, thus displacing the current centrality of the markets.

It is this proposal that we believe makes sense to pursue. For us, it is this collective and radically democratic debate emerging from the grassroots that can advance the feminist repeasantisation that we need for the food sovereignty of the peoples. 

This is our translation of a (shortened) article originally published in Spanish in the Food Sovereignty, Biodiversity and Culture Magazine (Revista de Soberania Alimentaria, Biodiversidad y Culturas), on 05/29/2019.