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What Happens to ‘Gender’ in Food and Agricultural Research? Mapping Four Broad Trends

The Women and Development Study Group recently revisited Sally Brown and Anne Marie Goetz’s 1997 Feminist Review article ‘Who Needs (Sex) When You Can Have Gender? Conflicting Discourses on Gender at Beijing?’. The article examines challenges to the concept of ‘gender’ at the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995, including debates on its institutionalization and depoliticization, the tendency for it to be used as a synonym for ‘women’, and the conservative backlash against the very use of the concept itself. The retrospective value of doing this showed just how relevant these questions continue to be for Gender and Development policy, practice, research and teaching today.

For example, when teaching sex and gender, critical feminist theorising can sometimes lead students to feel that Gender and Development (GAD) approaches are too instrumentalized, too much like an industry and disconnected from reality. Moreover, the positionality of working as ‘the gender person’ in larger projects, where the gender component is often seen to stand alone with little connection to other intersectional dynamics, remains an ongoing challenge. The increasing and worrying trend of an anti-woke ‘backlash’ against feminist analysis and gender equality across the globe was also a recurring theme.

We also considered how ‘gender’ as a concept is mobilised and used in food and agricultural studies specifically. In this blog, therefore, we examine what happens to the concept in food research, policy and practice, mapping out four broad trends. Firstly, the centring of the connection between gender, nutrition and mothering remains pervasive. Secondly, ‘gender equality’ is often instrumentalized as a tool to increase marketized forms of agricultural productivity. Thirdly, while a focus on gender is obviously welcome, it can in fact obscure other important axes of oppression, such as race, class, sexuality, disability and nationality. Finally, it is consequently crucial to ground research, policy and practice in historical specificity and context in order to take into account multiple underlying oppressions and structural inequalities that influence the ability of a range of different actors in the food system to participate both socially and economically.

Nutrition, Mothering and Consumption

The nutrition (and partly public health) scholarship awards women and mothers (terms that are too often used interchangeably) a central role. They are viewed as primary providers of child nutrition as well as bearing the responsibility of producing healthy future generations. In the words of the Population Research Bureau: “Adequate nutrition is especially critical for women because inadequate nutrition wreaks havoc not only on women’s own health but also on the health of their children”. Children of malnourished women are more likely to face cognitive impairments, short stature, and lower resistance to infections. These are very important concerns, dramatically so in parts of the Global South and among poorer and more vulnerable women.

However, the framing of gender development discourses around maternity is deeply problematic from the point of view of the advancement of inclusive and intersectional feminist struggles. Focusing efforts largely on women “of childbearing age” perpetuates reactionary notions regarding which health care demands are worth addressing, undermining the struggles for autonomous access to abortion and equal access to health services for all women and feminised people. At the same time, the effectiveness of nutrition interventions targeting mothers needs to be critically questioned. Nutrition programmes during pregnancy and in the first couple of years postpartum often fall short of addressing the compounding nature of nutritional disadvantages that are perpetuated across many women’s lives. For example, one recent publication found that effective interventions largely targeted women who were pregnant and lactating or with young children but left major gaps when it came to older women. It also found major research and programming gaps around overweight, obesity, and noncommunicable disease.

This tendency also risks individualising broader health and food systems malfunctions and blaming mothers for the consequences of complex socio-economic transformations. For example, outcomes from a recent study on the links between parental employment and children’s obesity and overweightness in the UK, had been instrumentalised on media headlines claiming that working mothers were to “blame” for the child obesity crisis. Instead, what the study shows is women are still taking on a disproportionate share of household and childcare responsibilities and the hollowed out public care sector in the UK has been rendered incapable of solving the childhood obesity pandemic.

The Instrumentalization of Gender

Within development discourse, gender approaches, such as women’s empowerment in agriculture or women as ‘agents of change’ to address climate change, have burdened rural women with major responsibilities that require transformational and revolutionary political commitments at the international, national and local level in all aspects of the social, political, economic and environmental. Moreover, as Galie and Kantor point out, the narrative linking women’s empowerment in agriculture and its operationalization, which views issues of food insecurity as simply reflecting a lack of access to productive resources, has been criticized for not delivering on its promise. In her work, Stevano warns how in such instrumental approaches, the relation between women participation to employment and food security are detached from the historical and socio-economic contexts in which they take place. Other (potentially reductionist) approaches, such digital and smart farming solutions that have a gender angle, risk remaining only superficial without addressing the fundamentals that shape unequal power relations and exploitation in food systems.

In general, such policy discourse promotes an apolitical vision of gender equality, and focuses on a distinctly narrow definition of economic empowerment, without addressing the norms, institutions and broader historical, political and economic structures that shape exploitation. Worryingly, it diverts attention away from the tools to counter processes of oppression, that award visibility to the exploitation of bodies and territories, give recognition to historically disregarded forms of labour and build bridges between multiple struggles and geographies (such as access to land, clean water, indigenous practices and universal quality health care, to mention a few).


In addition, a sole focus on the ‘gender’ dimensions of food security can also obscure the importance of intersecting dynamics of other key aspects identity, such as class, race, age, nationality, geographical location, religion, sexuality, disability, caste and more. In food studies, this can lead to an obscurement of the everyday realities of both women and men, with these other axes of marginalisation not taken sufficiently into account. As Erwin et al have recently shown in the Caylloma Province in Peru, intersectionality shapes adaptation to social-ecological change where, amongst other things, public irrigation commissions were largely designed for male Spanish speaking landowners, which has created barriers to access for Quechua speakers, women and migrants. Likewise in the Caribbean, as one of us (Thompson) has recently written about how the structural position and representation of female and male food producers in Trinidad and Tobago are impacted not only by gender, but also by race, ethnicity, class, nationality and enduring historical legacies of colonialism which come together to impact on the ability of food producers to access a range of material and non-material resources from the state, society, and both the local and global economy.

On an empirical level, feminists have long called for the disaggregation of statistics by sex, however, although there have been significant shifts towards this, collection of data on class, race, ethnicity, and other axes of oppression is often still limited. As Winkler and Satterwaite argue, despite the aspirational language of the SDGs’ ‘Leave No One Behind’ agenda, the reality of implementation has been that data disaggregation has failed to pay specific attention to important axes of discrimination such as race or ethnicity. For example, SDG 2 ‘Zero Hunger’ includes a focus marginalised individuals and groups via reference to ‘women, indigenous peoples, family farmers, pastoralists and fishers’ and the need to secure equal access to land, resources and inputs. However, whilst its indicator collects data on income, sex and indigenous status, other markers of social difference such as race, ethnicity, age and disability are not included, leaving a significant gap between rhetoric and implementation. Furthermore – and reinforcing our arguments above – references to gender in SDG 2 continue to collate around targets on nutrition, whereas targets on resilient agricultural practices, investment, international cooperation, markets, and trade are presented as gender neutral despite the fact these processes and practices are also produced by and reproduce intersecting inequalities of gender, race, class and so on.

The Importance of Socio-Economic Historical Context

One of the challenges of integrating better intersectional analyses in food and development work is that to understand how complex patterns of subordination are reproduced and experienced by a range of gendered and intersectional positionalities, we need to ground them in historically situated context. As Kiran and Shattuck found in a study on food security and forests, how, why, and to what degree gender was an important variable differed and was not generalisable across contexts. For example, access to land tenure and rights to forest lands can be strongly impacted by a range of social differences beyond just gender. It is therefore critical to understand gender relations at the local level, but also at the broader political and economic level where disparities are reinforced.

As President Joe Biden’s recently announced $5 billion stimulus package of direct relief to Black farmers highlights, farmers of colour in the United States have lost over 90 per cent of their land over the last century due to systematic discrimination and cycles of debt. Centuries of discriminatory agriculture lending, bias and subsidies have often benefitted white male farmers and left other groups such as Black, female and indigenous farmers at a socio-economic disadvantage. The opportunities and experiences of food producers across the globe are deeply embedded in these long histories of inequitable global and colonial relations. It is only paying attention to historical specificity that we can understand how different actors in the food system come to locate particular positions – both dominant and subordinate – and concomitantly address these complex inequitable relations of power in ways that are transformative for the local and global food system.

Concluding Thoughts

Just as Baden and Goetz noted in 1995, as gender becomes more mainstreamed the way it is deployed ‘can under specify the power relations maintaining gender inequality, and in the process, de-links the investigation of gender issues from a feminist transformatory project’. This tendency certainly continues in food and agricultural studies to some extent. However, as noted above, a rising number of studies are attempting to consider the relational and intersectional aspects of gender and power. Central to this is the consideration the how political, social and economic structures of power intersect at the local, national and global level. Vitally this must include attention to historically-situated context that shapes and it is shaped by the interplay of productive and socially reproductive labour.

As one of us (Picchioni et al) has recently shown in the context of Nigerian food markets, interactions between traders, retailers and consumers, are also places where productive and reproductive labour are intertwined through the provision of food, income generation and care work (such as, childcare, health- care, advice and support). Care, unpaid and underpaid work play a central but often undervalued role in how food systems operate, and this is something that often falls on the shoulders of women more than men from production through to food provisioning. Research on food and agriculture is starting to take some of these key issues into account. However, instrumentalization and efficiency arguments, an acknowledgment of gender beyond mothering and nutrition, a narrow focus on gender over others axes of oppression, and a lack of historical specificity, are all still too prevalent.

If you would like to join the Women and Development Study group or join the mailing list, please see here.

[1] Lecturer in Gender and Development, International Development Department (IDD), University of Birmingham. Email: [email protected]
[2] Fellow in Gender and Diversity in Food Systems, Natural Resources Institute (NRI), University of Greenwich. Email: [email protected]

Photo credit: UN Women/Ryan Brown 2018, Flickr (Creative Commons license)