Competing narratives on sustainable agriculture: what is the future that women want?

One view sees the expansion of commercial agriculture and high input agricultural value chains as the only way forward — a “green revolution” offering promising opportunities for smallholders to farm as a business. The other side passionately disagrees with this obsession with value chains and emphasises that agriculture is an activity intimately connected with the earth — ecological issues such as the long-term fertility of the soil cannot be ignored.

As this debate continued passed the parallel session where it emerged, what women themselves actually want became a central question. Women may not want to be driven into high value market chains. Women may instead want to achieve greater resiliency in food crop production for their families and communities under principles that preserve the long-term viability of their soil. On the other hand, a woman on poor, flood-prone land may prefer water-hungry sugarcane that will not be unpredictably destroyed, as her staple crops are all to often.

Proponents of opposing views may focus on different evidence and impressions. For example, a recent-meta study of organic compared to conventional yields published in Nature found that organic yields are 5% to 34% lower depending on the crop, management practices and soil (Seufert et al. 2012). Evidence such as this could be pointed to as a trade off between high productivity and environmental stewardship.

Advocates of the alternative stand behind the conclusions of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, a 3-year, multi-stakeholder, collaborative effort.  The assessment strongly underscores that we must view “farming communities, farm households, and farmers as producers and managers of ecosystems.” [underlining in the original document] (Synthesis Report Summary, UNEP 2009).

This debate that surfaced calls on delegates to reflect: what is our definition of sustainable agriculture? Are there really two competing views here between maximizing yields and economic objectives versus care for the environment and local food production? Or is there a harmonious way to pursue multiple objectives? How do we listen to the voice small producers themselves, and especially women that provide much of the farm labour? How can people be empowered to make their own informed choices about what vision of agricultural investment suits their needs? These are all questions I would challenge all the sectors represented in this conference to explore honestly and in terms of practical considerations for how we invest in women and agriculture.