Feeding the Hungry with Feminist Theory

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Food security, when every person has access to enough food to meet their dietary needs for a healthy lifestyle, is more important now than ever before. It’s estimated that roughly 345 million people worldwide are struggling with food security. Effects of climate change, the war in Ukraine, and the weaponization of food during conflict are just some of the factors that contribute to global food insecurity. While organizations like The World Food Program, Global Network Against Food Crises, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations work in tandem to combat this growing insecurity, these organizations must contend with questions about the most efficient way to make an impact. As 2022 comes to a close, the world is one year closer to determining if the United Nations reached the goal of ending world hunger and ensuring adequate access to nutritious food by 2030. This is undoubtedly a worthwhile challenge, and feminist IR theory can help us achieve it. 

Tucked behind the ‘big three -isms’ in IR (realism, liberalism, and constructivism) sits feminist IR theory, a subfield often left unacknowledged in the corner. To usher feminist IR theory into a position of use for policymakers and academics alike, it is essential to pull back the curtain and explore answers that gender-based theory can provide that the three ‘-isms’ do not. Each of the “big three” supplies insight into a new level of analysis – realism and states, liberalism and institutions, and constructivism and ideas. While these theories are great at supplying a lens through which to understand the world, they are not so great at helping us understand policy implications regarding individuals. 

Feminist Theory in International Relations 

In the same way that IR theory is divided into different paradigms, various perspectives within feminist theory supply competing definitions and subsequent assumptions. Standpoint feminist theory essentially redefines security, where previous definitions of security centered around borders and stability of a state, the standpoint feminist definition of security is about the security of women. Post-structural feminism is the most recent offshoot of feminist theory to make waves in the IR community; resting on the assumption that one’s identity shapes their relationship to the world, post-structural feminism is a more intersectional take on the role of identity (including race and class) when compared to standpoint feminism. 

The value of the feminist paradigm is in the questions that it helps us ask. In the case of global food security, asking questions such as, “will this policy impact both male and female farmers equally” and “would targeting this policy to women have a more positive effect compared to a gender-neutral policy” are steps towards creating a most effective version of a policy. 

Food Security Programs 

Global food aid programs began in the 1950s as a way to reduce food waste in some countries while addressing widespread hunger in others. These early efforts were directed towards an enduring truth: there is enough food in the world to feed everyone, food is just not distributed equally. Such food redistribution efforts may get caught in a problem: by providing food in hungry communities, local farmers lose out on the opportunity to profit from food sales and reinvest in their agriculture, ultimately running the risk of creating a system of dependency in an already faltering community. 

The World Bank defines four dimensions of food security as availability, access, utilization, and stability; recently developed programs aim to avoid creating dependency while supporting these four dimensions. New programs do not focus solely on offloading food surplus, but also investing in infrastructure, technology, and agriculture in hungry communities. In order to be effective, food aid organizations need to establish policies that not only target the facets of food security and address a community’s biggest weaknesses, but also ensure resilience in agriculture. In doing so, organizations must resist the temptation to create a one-size-fits-all policy. The process of determining which policy is best for a community is where a gendered lens could be helpful. 

How Feminist Theory can Feed the World

Beginning in 1995, the World Conference on Women highlighted the importance of gender mainstreaming, the process of analyzing the different implications a policy has for women than for men. By analyzing policy differences in terms of gender, one can identify and address potential weaknesses that a gender-agnostic lens would have missed. 

For farmers that must contend with brutal weather conditions or pests, organizations may work to help farmers access agricultural technology that mitigates the issues that reduce food yields. Once an organization makes this technology available to a community, they may see a failure to implement the new technology as a deliberate choice made by a farmer instead of an issue that needs to be addressed. 

Studies that disregard gender may conclude that this imparity is due to factors such as economic circumstances, but a study that uses a feminist lens can show that female-headed farming households are less likely to adopt new technology than their male-headed counterparts due to issues sourcing labor, exposure to new technology, or the inability to travel to purchase technology. Technology implementation is just one example of the gender gap that goes on to impact agriculture and food security. Everything from land ownership to education can also have an impact on the women who make up the world’s agricultural workforce. 

The updated U.S. Global Food Security Strategy posits that if women universally had access to the same farming resources as men, they could increase their yields by about 20-30%. This could culminate in an estimated 100-150 million people lifted out of chronic hunger. As the world attempts to address the effects of numerous crises on food security, it is imperative to use gender mainstreaming to ensure that all food policies are as effective as possible. 

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