Stephen Doughty says women hold the key to ensuring food security for a world in which one in seven are hungry

June 21st, 2012

The world’s poorest people don’t classify the food, water, energy, and clean air they depend on as separate poverty or environment issues. Like everybody else, they want to survive and live decent lives. From the Philippines to West Africa, people need joined up approaches and action – now.

From Wednesday to Friday this week the world’s leaders are in Rio de Janeiro, for the UN Sustainable Development Summit, to discuss how we can continue to develop and prosper while protecting the planet. Ending poverty and protecting the environment are inextricably linked and cannot be addressed in isolation. Themes for Summits don’t come any bigger than how to achieve prosperity, security and well-being for nine billion people in a world of finite resources and environmental limits.

The 1992 original ‘Earth Summit’ in Rio, saw leaders set groundbreaking targets such as emission reductions and put the world on track for sustainability. However, Rio+20 must broaden its lens beyond C02 emissions and renewable energy. It has to make a plan for how we can feed a growing population in the face of shrinking natural resources when one in seven of us already go hungry.

Crop yields are flat-lining. A changing climate, along with water and land shortages, threaten the agriculture on which our food system depends. Small-scale producers have the potential to help overcome these challenges, but they must be supported by the international community in Rio in order to do so. And more importantly, that support must extend to women small farmers, who are still denied equal access to resources and a seat at the table where decisions about agriculture and food security are made.

Half a billion small farms around the world are already helping put food on the plates of two billion people, with only minimal stress to our planet. It is time for a more sustainable approach to agriculture, where women’s contributions to food security are valued and where smallholders are empowered.

Enabling women to have equal access to economic opportunities and services is a matter of justice. We also know that it is one of the most effective strategies for reducing poverty and hunger. Women hold the key to ensuring food and nutrition security.

The numbers are convincing. Production on women’s farms could increase by up to a third if women had the same access as men to agricultural resources, and this could reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 100 to 150 million people. We know from a number of studies that when women earn money, they are more likely than men to spend it on food for the family.

The advancement of women is an essential prerequisite to overall development, but particularly to rural development. Women play a huge role in rural economies accounting for a great proportion of the agricultural labour force. If given the right support, women can also be the key to protecting our environment and natural resources. Research suggests that women express more concern for the environment than men and support policies that are environmentally beneficial.

We must supports the rights and conditions of rural women across the world.

However, the biggest risk for failure is if the Rio+20 Summit agrees to the weak proposals currently on the table.

The UN has already begun to deliberate on the post 2015 global development framework, starting with a review of lessons learnt from the existing Millennium Development Goals and options we have following their after expiry in 2015.  The current proposal on the table in Rio would effectively create a second process for global goals in the post-2015 period. This separate process would be focused on the environment will not provide the solution urgently needed to end poverty and inequality while protecting the planet.

The current proposals are a recipe for diluted commitment, duplicated effort, and dispersed focus, with the divide between environment and development efforts becoming further entrenched. Poor people will be the first to lose out if Rio+20 fails to aim for one set of goals for one planet. We need a single guiding framework whose purpose is to end poverty and restore the living world that sustains us all.

One example of where the problem lies can be seen in the Philippines. There the Millennium Development Goals are finally helping tackle poverty, but they aren’t a true measure of sustainable development. The government priority is poverty reduction, but it heavily depends on environmentally-damaging mining to pay for it. We need new ways forward.

And the reality and urgency for a joined up, holistic approach to sustainable development and ending poverty cannot be better shown than by the 18 million people in the Sahel region of West and Central Africa simply not having enough to eat, today. Persistent droughts, rising food prices and almost nonexistent investment in agriculture are the major causes of what could turn into a catastrophe if international action is not taken.

Rio+20 is a crucial opportunity to mark a clear turning point in tackling our failed food system, and tackling poverty and sustainability at the same time. Increasing investment in smallholder farmers so they can grow more food and cope with a changing climate is just one of the concrete steps which can and must be taken.

And when John Griffiths, Minister for the Environment and Sustainable Development, returns to Wales from Rio he needs to follow these same principles when finalising Wales’ new Sustainable Development Bill.

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Stephen Doughty is Head of Oxfam Cymru

One Response to:“Fair shares must have global reach”

  1. Steve Garrett says:

    Good and timely article, Stephen, with important points.
    We need stronger support for local food growing initiaitves here in Wales as well, so that we are ready with a resilient local food system when the globalised food economy with it’s total dependance of declining oil resources, begins to unravel.

    (Report comment)

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