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Repairing rifts or reproducing inequalities? Agroecology, food sovereignty, and gender justice in Malawi



This Malawi study examines whether agroecology can be effectively used by smallholders to address food sovereignty. We build on the concept of the metabolic rift, arguing that repairing this rift includes social relations. Agroecological methods can be important strategies, but are labour and knowledge intensive, and require addressing power dynamics within and beyond households in order to address food sovereignty. The case study included participatory methods of dialogue, experimentation and horizontal learning to foster change. We argue that feminist concepts of intersectionality and participatory praxis are central to mobilizing agroecology to build food sovereignty and work to transform social relations.
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The Journal of Peasant Studies
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Repairing rifts or reproducing inequalities?
Agroecology, food sovereignty, and gender justice
in Malawi
Rachel Bezner Kerr, Catherine Hickey, Esther Lupafya & Laifolo Dakishoni
To cite this article: Rachel Bezner Kerr, Catherine Hickey, Esther Lupafya & Laifolo Dakishoni
(2019): Repairing rifts or reproducing inequalities? Agroecology, food sovereignty, and gender
justice in Malawi, The Journal of Peasant Studies, DOI: 10.1080/03066150.2018.1547897
To link to this article:
Published online: 06 Feb 2019.
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Repairing rifts or reproducing inequalities? Agroecology, food
sovereignty, and gender justice in Malawi
Rachel Bezner Kerr
, Catherine Hickey
, Esther Lupafya
and Laifolo Dakishoni
Department of Development Sociology, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York;
Department of Geography,
Western University, London, Canada;
Soils, Food and Healthy Communities organization, Ekwendeni, Malawi
This Malawi study examines whether agroecology can be eectively
used by smallholders to address food sovereignty. We build on the
concept of the metabolic rift, arguing that repairing this rift includes
social relations. Agroecological methods can be important
strategies, but are labour and knowledge intensive, and require
addressing power dynamics within and beyond households in
order to address food sovereignty. The case study included
participatory methods of dialogue, experimentation and
horizontal learning to foster change. We argue that feminist
concepts of intersectionality and participatory praxis are central to
mobilizing agroecology to build food sovereignty and work to
transform social relations.
Agroecology; food
sovereignty; feminist
theory; intersectionality;
metabolic rift
Food Sovereignty, Gender and Intersectionality
Arising out of the interests of smallholder farmers, themselves a disparate and varied set of
classes across cultures with a range of political views, food sovereignty was conceptualized
as a means to wrestle political control of the food system away from the concentrated agri-
food industry back into both producers and eatershands (Wittman, Desmarais, and Wiebe
2010). The Nyéléni Declaration (2007) denes food sovereignty as:
The right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically
sound and sustainable methods, and their right to dene their own food and agriculture
systems. It puts the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute and consume
food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and
The denition of food sovereignty thus has components towards which it is striving
(healthy, ecologically produced, culturally appropriate food dened by people), and
those which it is working against (markets and corporations setting the agenda for the
food system). Conceptualized more of a set of processes that are historically and spatially
contingent rather than a single attainable goal, food sovereignty has gained increasing
recognition, including the incorporation into state constitutions, policies and programmes
© 2019 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
CONTACT Rachel Bezner Kerr Department of Development Sociology, Cornell University,
262 Warren Hall, Ithaca, NY 14853, New York
(Iles and Montenegro de Wit 2015; Shattuck, Schiavoni, and VanGelder 2015; Schiavoni
2017). At the same time, some are skeptical of food sovereignty claims, arguing that the
concept fails to take into account the contradictory and competing class interests that
advocate for food sovereignty, and ignores hard realities about the potential for peasants
to viably produce enough food in the contemporary period, particularly without taking
gender inequalities in family farming into account (Agarwal 2014; Bernstein 2014;
Jansen 2014;Li2015).
The term intersectionality refers to the multiple, overlapping and interactive ways in
which race, sexuality, class, gender, and other categories of dierence can be used as mul-
tiple forms of oppression and sources of power at individual, social and institutional levels
(Crenshaw 1991; Davis 2008, 68). Some scholars and activists of food sovereignty note the
importance of historically, politically and culturally situated convergence of interests,
which links to intersectional analysis (Sachs and Patel-Campillo 2014; Alonso-Fradejas
et al. 2015; Brent, Schiavoni, and Alonso-Fradejas 2015). Advocates of a food sovereignty
approach have long incorporated issues of gender and other social justice dimensions into
both its conceptualization and application (Desmarais 2007; Patel 2012). Nonetheless, dis-
cussions about radical and progressive social movements that mobilize around food sover-
eignty often mention gender inequality only in passing, rather than highlighting it as a
crucial component (Holt Giménez and Shattuck 2011; Agarwal 2014). Some scholars con-
clude that gender issues are still largely missing from both theoretical discussions and
applications of food sovereignty in practice (Agarwal 2014; Sachs and Patel-Campillo
2014; Park, White, and Julia 2015). OLaughlin (2007) makes the critical argument that
without addressing structural inequalities that foster poverty, addressing intrahousehold
gender inequalities will not reduce poverty in Africa. Agarwal (2014) argues that the
increased feminization of agriculture will require systematically addressing gender
inequalities in food production, while considering the needs of non-family farmers such
as urban dwellers, and that food sovereignty as currently conceptualized by LVC, fails to
do so. In contrast, Patel (2012) argues that food sovereignty invitesa radical feminist
analysis, due to the approach to power relations embedded in the concept.
There are few empirical studies that apply gender analysis and the concept of food
sovereignty in a particular context (Rosset et al. 2011; Carney 2012; McMahon 2012;
Oliver 2016). Social movements who have mobilized around food sovereignty in Latin
America have made signicant gains in strengthening womens formal rights to land
access (Deere 2017). In her analysis of food insecurity in a southern California county
amongst low-income Latino families, Carney (2012) suggests that understanding how
gender inequality intersects with poverty, discrimination and low food security is central
to using food sovereignty as an operational framework. McMahon (2011) argues that
Canadian agri-food standards are insidiously gendered in the conception of both meat
consumers and producers, in ways in which marginalize small-scale women meat produ-
cers in British Colombia. Taking food sovereignty seriously would mean addressing gender
inequality that is structurally embedded in the agricultural standards. Oliver (2016)
recounts the organization of women farmers in Uruguay that used feminist and agroeco-
logical principles to establish a herb cooperative. Uruguayan women farmers articulated
the importance of diversication and participatory eorts to foster their leadership as
two key dimensions for their success. A study of agroecological, farmer-to-farmer move-
ments in Latin America that used a food sovereignty approach suggested that these
approaches create more equitable family and community relations (Rosset et al. 2011,
18384). They argued that, while under conventional systems men control the inputs
and outputs, with agroecological systems women have more decision-making control
and income from an increased variety of crops and production methods. There was
limited evidence, however, to support these claims, nor was there discussion as to the
gender implications of these shifts, for example, potential increases in womens labour
with agroecological production systems. Rosset et al. (2011, 184) also noted that gender
inequality remains a challenge, both in terms of household relationships and leadership
within farmer organizations. While these few studies have begun to address the gap in
studies on food sovereignty and gender inequity, none have examined the particular
relationships between gender, food sovereignty and specic agroecological practices. In
this paper we examine whether agroecology can be eectively used to address food
sovereignty, by contrasting principles of food sovereignty with dierent agroecological
strategies crop diversication, intercropping and use of compost and examine the
gender implications of these approaches. We begin by making an explicit argument
about agroecology and the metabolic rift.
Agroecological approaches and the metabolic rift
Agroecology, which is often called a science, practice and movement (Wezel et al. 2009),
includes an approach to farming which attempts to mimic natural systems, by having a
more closed-loop system of organic material, water and energy, increased agrobiodiver-
sity and close attention to the interactions of crops, insects and disease ecologies at the
farm and landscape level (Rosset and Altieri 2017). Integration of social science and
other disciplines, and respect for other forms of knowledge is a key part of agroecolo-
gical practice (Méndez, Bacon, and Cohen 2013). Recent scholarship, debates and advo-
cacy on agroecology have centred the ways in which it can and should be linked to
issues of power (Rosset and Altieri 2017). Terms such as transformative agroecology
have highlighted the importance of attention to political and economic factors which
inuence whether agroecology works towards food sovereignty or is more focused on
solely making agriculture more environmentally sustainable (Méndez, Bacon, and
Cohen 2013). These broader debates, however, often fail to be embedded in critical
examinations of the power dynamics within households and communities who are
using agroecological approaches.
Several scholars have argued that agroecological approaches are fundamental to food
sovereignty, because they repair the metabolic rift brought about by the commodication
of land and labour through capitalism (Wittman 2009; Schneider and McMichael 2010).
The metabolic rift is a set of relational ecological and social processes, disrupting material,
epistemic and social pathways. The rifts include ecological rifts robbing the soil of
organic material and biota as well as nutrients and epistemic rifts farmersknowledge
and close observation of ecological processes with agroecosystem landscapes. Schneider
and McMichael (2010) argued that agroecology addressed epistemic rifts brought about
by capitalism, by rebuilding farmersknowledge and observation of dynamic ecological
processes. Timmermann and Félix (2015) argue that agroecology provides a sense of
dignity and meaning to farm work, stimulating creativity, ingenuity and capacity
through knowledge-intensive practices, and establishing new power relations through
the recognition of their specialized knowledge. But what of the social relations embedded
or arising from agroecological methods?
In this paper we attempt to broaden the concept of metabolic rift into the social pro-
cesses that need to be repaired, by drawing on the notion of feminist intersectionality.
Paying attention to specic farming practices is crucial, because they inuence the
broader set of social and ecological relations. Little is known about the ways in which
agroecological methods might intersect with social relations at the household scale to
inuence food sovereignty. Can agroecological methods address the ways in which capit-
alism exploits human labour, and in particular womens reproductive work, as described by
Patel and Moore (2018)? Or do agroecological methods merely reproduce these inequal-
ities, which are already deeply inscribed in rural communities in Malawi? In this study we
get into the weedsof agroecology, food sovereignty and gender justice linkages by
examining particular agroecological practices and the social relations embedded or
linked to these practices. We pay attention to both labour and decision-making as key
sites of micro-struggles for building food sovereignty, and consider the intersection and
contradictions that agroecological methods pose for addressing both food sovereignty
and gender justice through the case study of a farmer-to-farmer agroecology project in
Malawi. We argue that feminist intersectionality combined with agroecology can repair
not only epistemic rifts about soils and farming, but can work towards transformed
social relations. Close attention to social inequalities and the physical labour required to
enact agroecology themselves historically and spatially contingent are crucial to
achieve these impacts.
Malawi is a country of 16 million people who practice primarily peasant agriculture, with a
small estate sector that has been privileged both under colonial and postcolonial regimes
(Kydd and Christiansen 1982). Indigenous practices to sustain soil fertility included shifting
cultivation, crop diversity, fallowing and strategic use of ash, manure, weeds, crop residues
and ant hills (Moyo 2014; Mulwafu 2015). Letting land go fallow and cultivating land where
nitrogen-xing indigenous trees were growing previously were also key practices (Moyo
2014). Many of these practices were actively discouraged by the British, although their
focus on smallholder farmers was largely limited to enforcement of soil conservation
measures, promotion of cash crops and Master Farmersto encourage particular
methods such as monocrops and synthetic fertilizer (Mandala 2005; Mulwafu 2015). The
British colonial system also created a system of male migrant labour (in mines and planta-
tions) to neighbouring colonies and rural female agricultural labour for food and cash crop
production (Bezner Kerr 2005a;OLaughlin 2013). The postcolonial dictatorship of Kamuzu
Banda sustained this system, while providing support to smallholders through agricultural
research, extension, agricultural credit, rural depots and subsidized inputs. The focus was
on maize production and modernagriculture through the use of fertilizer and maize
monocrops with primarily male better-osmallholders benetting from government
support (Ellis, Kutengule, and Nyasulu 2003). In 1965, the Land Act allowed customary
land to be leased. Thousands of hectares were taken from smallholder farmers during
this period and reallocated to state entities and political allies for large-scale tobacco
estate production, leading to a rising class of elite large-scale landowners (Ellis, Kutengule,
and Nyasulu 2003). Smallholders had to sell to rural depots and the surplus prots were
invested in tobacco estate production and the banking sector. Only 5% of government
funds were allocated to smallholder maize production, compared to 43% allocated to
estate crops (Kydd and Christiansen 1982). A combination of rising oil prices, heavy extrac-
tion of smallholder crops, and civil war in Mozambique led to a debt crisis and structural
adjustment in the 1990s (Kydd and Christiansen 1982; Peters 2006). Extension and credit
programmes were cut, rural depots closed, the Malawian Kwacha devalued and tobacco
promoted for smallholder farmers. Rural poverty rose dramatically, health and education
declined and chronic food insecurity and malnutrition became commonplace (Peters
2006). A universal subsidy (the Fertilizer Input Subsidy Program or FISP) introduced in
2006, included fertilizer and hybrid maize seed, with agro-input companies benetting
from increasingly tight relations between state actors and multinational corporations
(Chinsinga 2011).
This paper draws on long-term participatory action research, over 17 years of working
alongside smallholder farming households in northern Malawi, in which we have tested
agroecological methods (Msachi, Dakishoni, and Bezner Kerr 2009; Nyantakyi-Frimpong
et al. 2017). An initial qualitative study identied low soil fertility, limited dietary diversity
and gender inequality as some key drivers of food insecurity and malnutrition in northern
Malawi (Bezner Kerr 2005a). Limited knowledge about legumes or compost as means to
improve soil fertility, and expressed dependence on synthetic fertilizer were contributing
to feelings of hopelessness among these farmers (Bezner Kerr 2005a). A pilot study was
initiated in 7 villages to test whether dierent edible legume crops could be grown to
both improve soil fertility, food security and nutrition (Bezner Kerr and Chirwa 2004). Par-
ticipatory research methods were used, in which farmers chose which legume options
they wanted to test, and assessed them in small plots in their elds. Farmer Research
Team members were also selected from each village, were taught about the legume
options and trained other participating farmers the methods learned. Over the rst
decade, more than 10,000 farmers were trained in agroecological methods. Using a parti-
cipatory action research approach meant that the methodology was iterative: workshops
were held annually to discuss progress with farming households, and the research was
adapted based on these reections. Follow-up discussions held with participating house-
hold revealed complex intergenerational and class tensions over child feeding practices
and gender inequalities. Older women in the northern patrilocal kinship systems, who
had relatively greater power within extended families, at times blamed younger women
for poor child nutrition, thereby maintaining the status quo of gender inequality
(Bezner Kerr, Dakishoni, and Shumba 2008). At the same time, deeply unequal divisions
of labour, combined with high food insecurity, led to high levels of alcohol abuse and
domestic violence (Bezner Kerr 2005a). In this context, new methods of growing
legumes, including burying the residue soon after harvest, involved additional labour
for younger women, already heavily burdened, or the need to negotiate with spouses.
Even when legume production increased, men might sell the crop and use the funds
for alcohol (Bezner Kerr et al. 2016). So the initial introduction of agroecological
methods didnt lead to improved food security or nutrition.
To address these issues, we initiated discussion groups, in which men and women of
dierent generations discussed ways to improve agriculture and nutrition (Satzinger,
Bezner Kerr, and Shumba 2009). Training for community facilitators in participatory
discussion methods was provided. The facilitators raised sensitive issues such as conict-
ing views on child feeding, or the gendered division of labour, in culturally appropriate and
respectful ways. These discussion groups allowed men and women to talk about alterna-
tive ways of organizing the division of labour, although the discussions were often heated
and contentious (Satzinger, Bezner Kerr, and Shumba 2009; Bezner Kerr et al. 2016; Bezner
Kerr 2017). In 2012, the work expanded to include an additional 6000 farming households
who participated in training and farmer-led support on agroecological methods. The
growing awareness within the project team about gender inequality led to several
additional activities. Farmer research team members performed dramas at eld days to
raise awareness about particular gender issues, such as how money from crop sales
were used, and organized recipe daysto encourage more equitable gender relations
around cooking and child feeding (Patel et al. 2015). There is evidence that these
eorts have increased womens leadership, more equitable household decision-making
and division of labour in rural communities (Patel et al. 2015; Bezner Kerr et al. 2016;
Bezner Kerr 2017). In this article, we focus on some of the challenges of this food sover-
eignty and agroecological approach which pays attention to gender and other social
Our main source of data for this paper is a set of 90 in-depth interviews carried out over
2016 and 2017. These in-depth, semi-structured interviews explored the perceptions and
experiences that farmers had using agroecological practices. Interviews were carried out
near the homestead and often included opportunity to visit the eld and observe
dierent features of the farming system. We read all the interview eld notes and tran-
scripts and created analytical and descriptive codes based on themes (Miles and Huber-
man 1994). Additional material was gleaned through previous research, including over
200 interviews and extensive participant observation, as researchers, hospital staand
farmer leaders.
We developed an argument drawing from these ndings, and followed
up with additional informal observations, as a means to validate and verify these initial
conclusions. In the following section we draw from key tenets of food sovereignty and
link them to agroecology and gender justice. We discuss our ndings in relation to
these statements, agroecological practices and the gendered issues that have arisen in
our work.
Who is using these methods?
The farmers using these agroecological methods are typically small-scale, subsistence
oriented producers, farming on average 1 hectare (2.5 acres) as their main source of
income. Almost half of households had previously relied on nearby casual on-farm
labour (called ganyu in Malawi) as a source of food and income during the growing
season, a type of labour exchange which is highly exploitative (Bezner Kerr 2005b). Base-
line survey data in 2012 indicated that most of the farmers relied primarily on their own
production as their source of income, with rural wages acting as a stop-gap measure for
a few months when crops are nished, so these farmers could largely be categorized as
peasants rather than semi-proletariats or petty commodity producers (MAFFA Baseline
Survey, unpublished data). Previous surveys of participating farmers also showed about
The Non-Medical Research Ethics Board of Western University approved all of this research, and informed oral consent was
obtained prior to all interviews.
20% previously relied on labour migration as a source of income, often involving men tra-
velling to estates (Kangmennaang, Bezner Kerr, and Luginaah 2018). While this is a signi-
cant number, it does not reect patterns of increased feminization of agriculture seen in
Asia (Agarwal 2014).
A 2017 survey of 1200 randomly selected households showed that those using agroe-
cological methods owned on average 1.2 ha of land, compared to 0.86 ha of those house-
holds not using the methods. This dierence in land ownership was not found at the start
of the work, in which the average land ownership was 0.96 ha, suggesting that households
using these methods are increasing the amount of land that they farmed, and decreasing
their reliance on ganyu as a source of income. This could be viewed as a form of repeasan-
tization and a form of building autonomy (Rosset and Martínez-Torres 2012; van der Ploeg
2014). It also suggests that there may be increasing land inequalities between those using
agroecology and those not, although more research is needed to explore these dynamics.
The majority of the adults heading the family were married (of which only about 20%
were polygamous households), with about 20% of households either divorced, widowed
or single. About 40% of households had more than 6 members, with the majority of house-
holds having between 3 and 5 members. Most adults had a primary school level education,
with women having lower rates of education than men, and rates of education lower in the
central region compared to the northern region.
Rebuilding epistemic and metabolic rifts
Our qualitative interviews indicate that many farmers have an increased knowledge and
awareness about the use of organic materials to improve land quality, and they have
applied this knowledge and observed visible changes in their land and their crops,
thereby rebuilding the epistemic rift. Many farmers interviewed had not previously
known how to make compost or grow some legumes, and did not know that these
were nitrogen-xing crops that could improve the soil, but through this process had
experimented with dierent agroecological methods:
For intercropping with pigeon pea, it is very good. The soil pan used to be very hard but with
pigeon pea roots they break the soil and it is very soft. (GTU 2016_35)
I think these practices are very good, because now I see the soils are very improved. When you
bury the maize stalks and residue, and you prepare the land, you see the soil is very soft and
darker. (GTU 2016_38)
With making pit compost, the work is not very tiring, and Ive observed that where I applied
compost the maize grew well and cobbed well. But for the fertilizer if you only apply NPK, it is
questionable youll get much unless you add urea. In addition, the soil where you add compost
becomes softer. (GTU 2016_42)
Ive also observed that elds where Ive applied compost, the soil stays moist even when it is
very hot My soils have improved because of the dierent methods we are using. In the past
the soil used to be very hard but now it is very soft and dark. (GTU 2016_37).
Since I started I noticed I dont need to spend money on basal dressing fertilizer because the
soils are improved. There is no dierence with crops that have used fertilizer. When there was
a break in the rains the intercropping helped give shade to the crops (pigeon pea, ground
nuts), which lessened the impact of the dry spell. (GTU C02)
These ndings suggest a fundamental shift in the relationships between people and the
land, and a rebuilding of the knowledge required to sustain themselves on the land by
repairing the soil. This shift included several processes occurring concurrentlyhorizontal
sharing amongst poor farmers, farmer experimentation, reduced dependence on pur-
chased inputs, and observed increases in soil quality and food production. Numerous
farmers spoke with pride and condence about the observations that they had made,
their experiments and the ways in which these methods were explicitly for the poor.
One woman, for example, had observed a location where bats roosted, and she took
bat manure and mixed it in with her compost, resulting in excellent yields that year
(Case Study 1). Her overall food security situation, however, needs more than agroecology
to solve:
Case Study 1: Trudy Chirwa
Trudy Chirwa is 36 years old, married, with 6 children, 2 of whom are under 2 years old. She
joined the project in 2012. Her family used to be very food insecure, typically eating only one
meal a day. Her husband is a drunkardwho drinks daily, leaving her to do most of the
eldwork. Last year he was accused of raping a 13 year old girl, and went to prison, leaving
her even more short of labour. This past year the rains were not good, and I saw that I
wont have enough food because I was alone, so when the maize emerged I took one pail
of maize bran and ash. There was a house that was abandoned with lots of bats. I collected
the bat manure and I was able to get 3 (50 kg) bags. I mixed with maize bran and ash,
stirred it up, and left for two weeks, then I added two plates of urea and 2321, and
applied to my maize, all my elds. And I tell you, they were nice cobs, big. But because I
was out of food, I began to harvest the green maize. Otherwise I would take you to the
eld because it was a very big.[Where did you learn to do this?]Ive never heard anything
about bat manure, but since the project has been advocating the use of manure, and I
dont have many chickens, or animals I thought Id try it.[You are a real scientist!] Yes, Ima
real scientist and Ive even convinced my friends.
The evident pride that farmers took in their agroecological methods appear to support the
Timmermann and Félixs(2015) claims about agroecology providing contributive justice
and repairing the epistemic rift, by creating meaningful work that requires creativity, close
observation of ecological changes, and ingenuity. Trudys experimentation with bat
manure and legume residue has had signicant impacts on her food security, and her
overall family situation. Notably, however, without further change within her family, she
continues to struggle with food security. Patriarchal systems of power combined with per-
sistent poverty work to sustain these systemic inequalities.
Labouring ecologies
One pathway that gets disrupted in the metabolic rift is the direct connection people have
between their labour and the food they eat. Agroecology rebuilds that connection, but in
often very labour intensive ways. Compost-making is a common strategy that farmers
used, in which they gathered a wide range of materials depending upon what was avail-
able, and either put the organic material into pits, or made heaps. Making enough
compost for their rainfed plots could take several months in the dry season. When
Pseudonyms are used to protect the identity of respondents.
Field notes, GTU_2016_38, May 16, 2016 interview.
asked whether they thought it was too much work, there was wide variation in responses.
Trudy, for example, noted
Yes, it is a lot of work, especially compost making because you have to pick the residue, the
dierent materials for compost, chop it up, mix it. It is tedious. But looking at the benets, it is
worth it. And especially this year, I see the benets, so I think Ill continue.
Another person, Anna Kondwe, talked about the ways in which she was shifting from
doing casual labour on other peoples farms, to her own farm. She argued that it was
time well spent, because she was moving away from exploitative labour and from
chronic hunger, thereby re-building the (ecological and epistemic) metabolic rift and
regaining the means of production (see Case Study 2). It is worthwhile work, because
we see the benet.
Case Study 2: Anna and Wilson Kondwe
Anna Folger is 32 years old, married to Wilson Kondwe. They have 5 children, including a one-
month old baby and a 3 year old child. In the past, the Kondwe family would run out of food
supplies in November, and they would have to temporarily move to Mozambique to work as
rural labour on large estates to get food. They began working with the project in 2014. Wilson
said I had kind of given up on our elds, because even if I put fertilizer, nothing would work.
Although he had heard on the radio about compost use, he thought that is for rich people,
because extension always come here to work with those who have resources. But with the
project, they work with people like me, with no resources. So I wanted to try it.They
began intercropping, adding compost, and incorporating residue such as soya and maize.
They also increased the number of crops, adding more legumes and indigenous grains
such as sorghum. Anna added I used to intercrop in the past but not systematically. With
the project we had the idea of being systematic, so I wanted to try it.The biggest change
she has had in her life has been a lot more food availability, including 23 50 kg bags of ground-
nuts harvested last year, which they used to buy iron sheets for their roof, and a pig with 6
piglets. Anna noted that she has also seen a lot of changes with her husband, who now
helps with the children, even preparing food and collecting water. They now discuss a lot
more about farming. He agreed. We talk between the two of us, we ask each other what
to do, discuss and agree. This helps us to avoid conict. When we discuss, each one of us
knows where the money has gone and agrees with the new purchases. The discussion was
there before but only about fertilizer, nothing else, which brought in conict. I was deciding
on my own. But now we are even discussing these small things, and so the conict has gone
Other farmers had heard about these methods but had assumed that they were suitable for
better-off farmers. Wilsons explicit reference to class that these are methods for poor
people was mentioned by a number of respondents. Another couple who had less than
half an acre of land, had spent most of the dry season collecting organic materials and
making compost, then labouriously carrying and applying it to their eld. The yield from
that eld was enough that they were able to buy new land, no longer having to rent it
from others, and had enough food to last until the next harvest. When asked about
whether the agroecological methods were too much work, the wry answer was:
To me no, because Im poor, I cannot manage to buy fertilizer. To those who say its tedious, it
means they are better o, they can manage to buy fertilizer. (GTU 2016_35, May 15, 2016)
Source: Field notes, GTU_2017_5, January 5, 2017
Another woman said emphatically, after describing the many hours of labour to make and
apply the compost:
The time that we spend making compost is worth it. Because of this work we are able to
produce more food, and along with other activities like selling soya through the cooperative
it is worth it. We even earn some money. With the compost now we have a better reason to
use it because we understand it. (Field notes, May 7, 2016)
These cases are examples of rural producers who have shifted from reliance on precarious
casual labour and migration to agroecological production, are establishing some autonomy
through rebuilding the soil, and by doing so, are attaining some measure of food sover-
eignty. At the same time, this work is seen by some as necessary because of their
poverty, and could be viewed as a stopgapmeasure for those who are interested in shift-
ing into a petty commodity producerstatus once enough money has been earned to allow
them to purchase fertilizer, seeds and other inputs (Bernstein 2014). Some sell soya into
global trade networks, thereby becoming petty commodity producers to some extent,
although they are selling their surplus, and thus may be trying to maintain their autonomy
within global markets, as has been found in the case of some southern Mexican coffee pro-
ducers (Henderson 2017). Some households were hiring casual (ganyu) workers themselves
to carry out agroecological practices, thereby potentially increasing class divisions and
widening inequality within communities. Rhoda, a divorced woman who had previously
had to work on estates in exchange for food at the height of the hungry season,was
now periodically hiring 5 workers to help with the labourious work involved in compost
preparation and application (Interview GTU 2017_8). Thus, agroecology was not necessarily
connected with re-peasantization or solidarity with rural labourers it was a contested
space, with evidence that these approaches built solidarity amongst rural producers, particu-
larly poorer producers, while not building links with rural waged labourers. These ndings
are in keeping with other studies that indicate that agroecology and food sovereignty move-
ments are most aligned with rural producers and are often unsuccessful at building alliances
across classes with the landless rural labourers (Henderson 2018).
A shift towards agroecological practices alone did not lead to food sovereignty. A
crucial change within many households that allowed for achieving greater food security
has been changing the gender relations within the household, such that decision-
making and labour is more equitably shared (Agarwal 2014). The Khondwes and Rhoda
are not alone in contrasting migration to work on estates to agroecological methods on
their farms. Other households stopped relying on estate work and migration to other
regions, once their farming began to produce more harvest (see for example Case
Study 3). One key dimension of this shift to improved food security, included a shift in
gender relations.
Case Study 3: Susan and William Kamanga
Susan Kamanga and her husband William have 4 children, and a small farm. In the past, they
would often run out of their own food supplies, and William would travel several hours to work
doing ganyu on estates in Nkhata Bay. They joined the project in 2012. They planted a diverse
set of crops, and began applying compost in the maize garden. In all her gardens Susan and
her husband use legume residue. They tried mulching last year and they harvested a lot of
maize, which they attributed to the soils holding more moisture. They also used the same
agroecological farming practices of using compost and legume residue incorporated in
their dry season vegetable garden. Since we started using these methods, we have enough
food and even dierent types of food and we are food secure. Our children are eating well
and growing well because use have our own soya beans and millet that we make porridge.
We are able to sell some crops and get money.William began to stay on the farm throughout
the year because of the improved harvest, and their own relationship began to change. we
are now working together very well and he helps with a lot of work at the house including
looking after children and cooking.When asked what the biggest change has been, Susan
replied denitively, food security.
Labouring bodies, rifts in metabolisms
Transforming elds and relations through agroecology was not a straightforward process,
but was contingent on the specic context social, ecological and political. There were con-
siderable contradictions and diculties in using these labour-intensive processes. One
household, who had a baby within the last year, grew many dierent crops on their 2-
acre farm, and had worked hard to incorporate legume residue to improve soil fertility.
When it came time for weeding, they decided to apply herbicides, partly because the
baby needed frequent breastfeeding and the husband decided it was too much work to
weed all the dierent crops with a newborn baby. Prioritizing healthy child feeding practices
and protecting his wifes health meant for him, at least for this season, that they would rely
on fossil-fuel based, capital-intensive inputs. They were also unaware of some of the dangers
of herbicides, such as weed resistance. Greater experience with agroecological methods (ie
use of mulch, or intercropping) might have reduced their weeding burden, but the consider-
able labour of early exclusive breastfeeding with only young children in the family must be
recognized as a major constraint. Feminist political economistsresearch on social reproduc-
tion is relevant here as a key terrain of struggle that requires further attention (Agarwal 2014;
Strauss and Meehan 2015). In some cases men were quick to state that the work was not
overly burdensome, while overlooking the additional work that women carry out through
reproductive and care responsibilities. Alfred, a 34 year old farmer, is married to Willa, 22
years old and they have 3 children, including an infant at the time of the interview. When
asked why they had decided to apply compost to the elds, he stated:
One day my wife was asked to go and attend a compost demonstration and they saw a maize
eld with compost. She came home and talked to me and said we should try this year, because
we couldnt manage to buy fertilizer, so we added ash, residue. And when we planted we got a
good result As soon as we nished harvesting I dug a pit. It took 2 h. We made the compost
with ash, crop residue and pig manure. After a month the compost was ready. Then we put
compost in sacks, stored in shed. We applied in January applying took one day we did
as well as my father and mother. We carried to eld. It took 2 trips, 4 bags. Since the eld
is far from here, we had to leave early in the morning with the bags on our heads. We
applied the compost at 1 pm and then went back home to get the second sacks. We have
a relative here who was taking care of the children. My wife was pregnant, but carrying the
compost wasnt tiresome. To me I didnt see it as a burden because what I heard from my wife
I just wanted to try this compost.(italics added)
Much of the agroecological work carried out on the elds, such as compost preparation
and residue incorporation, is done during the dry season, when rural households often
have more leisure time. While this seasonal break means that families have the time to
Source: Field notes, GTU_2016_41, May 17, 2016 interview
Source: Field notes, GTU 2016 34, interview May 14, 2016
apply these practices (as opposed to the intensive growing season), it also means that
there is little opportunity for leisure at a time post-harvest when others may be enjoying
the fruits of their labours. As one older man observed frankly when asked about the
The only time that we are free is once weve prepared the gardens. It is true that it is a lot of
work. We cant go to meetings or even just to be at home to do some things. [is the workload
too heavy? Do you resent it?] Sometimes yes, we do discuss that this is a lot of work. We talk
about tractors, which would save time.
Nourishing bodies
Food is a basic human right. Everyone must have access to safe, nutritious and culturally appro-
priate food in sucient quantity and quality to sustain a healthy life with full human dignity.
(LVC Position on Food Sovereignty, cited in Wittman, Desmarais, and Wiebe 2010, 197)
A consistent theme brought up in interviews with both men and women reported that
the agroecological methods helped to improve their food security, due in part to the
number of crops grown over a longer season, as well as increased maize yields from
improved soil fertility. A number of farmers reported that there is a big change in
terms of food security since using these methods. Our quantitative research has
shown signicant improvements in food security using standardized measures (Kang-
mennaang et al. 2017; Owoputi et al. 2018). Farmers used different indicators to
assess their food security status (Table 1).
The fact that farmers were able to produce enough food for their family was often a
source of pride. For example one woman said the following:
Before we didnt harvest enough. Every year we experienced hunger. But now we have
enough food. Like this year well nish in March (harvest time). Also in diets, when we cultivate
we have many dierent foods. Our sweet potatoes we make donuts, we also make meat from
pumpkin. All that I have is from my garden.
Our research team has documented improvements for households using agroecological
methods in child nutritional status (Bezner Kerr, Berti, and Shumba 2010), adultsreported
health status (Nyantakyi-Frimpong et al. 2017), and during interviews farmers also
reported changes in child nutrition, such as healthier, more energetic children. They
observed that in the past their children were malnourished due to both a lack of food
and parental knowledge on processing and utilization, while now their children were heal-
thier, which they attributed to a more diversied diet. One man, for example, whose
daughter was ve years old when he joined the project, said that she had been clinically
assessed as malnourished at the hospital, but that she had improved her nutritional status
after eating a lot of soya porridge. Farmers also reported reduced illnesses in young chil-
dren. One middle-aged woman, Eliza, had seen many positive changes from the project,
including improved health of her children, increased knowledge and greater autonomy:
In the past my kids were falling sick a lot, and I was at the hospital frequently. Some were mal-
nourished. But now that Im growing dierent crops and enough that problem isnt there. This
agroecology project is good for me. In the past, I thought that for a family to be healthy, I had
GTU 2017_7 January 6, 2017, male farmer, 53 years old
GTU 2017, January 13, 2017, 38 year old woman
to go to the market and buy everything. But now I know how to grow these crops and prepare
good meals from the crops were growing.
Liberating ecologies
Food sovereignty implies new social relations free of oppression and inequality between men
and women, peoples, racial groups, social classes and generations. (LVC 2007 Position on Food
Sovereignty, cited in Wittman, Desmarais, and Wiebe 2010, 197)
If food sovereignty includes the process of farmers shifting away from a dependence on
chemical fertilizers and pesticides, in the context of Malawi where reliance on these inputs
has been historically emphasized and supported by the state (Mulwafu 2015), then farmers
will need capacity-building, support and training to use more agroecological methods.
These new methods will require a shift in thinking, towards one that fosters observation,
experimentation and ongoing learning. Rather than a timeless indigenous knowledge, in
the Malawian political and historical context, farmers have to learn and experiment with
what might seem like new methods of improving soil fertility, and regain appreciation
for indigenous crops, which have been maligned and racially constructed as backwards
for many decades (Mulwafu 2015; Bezner Kerr 2014).
Altering gender relations is another necessary component of having transformative
agroecology in Malawi. While Eliza, quoted above, was able to grow more diverse crops
and have healthier children, she also had to struggle with her husbands excessive drinking.
She viewed agroecological approaches as one way to solve her problems, as a poor person
Here, we are very poor people. Most of the time we lack enough food and other things. So we
are looking for new solutions to solve these things. My husband is a heavy drinker. So I had
very little food most of the time. So I had to involve myself in these new practices to keep
from falling back into that old situation.
In order to achieve food sovereignty, explicit attempts at a broad level to address gender
injustice and other forms of social inequalities are needed (OLaughlin 2007; Agarwal
2014), similar to the political consciousness raising dimensions of education included in
food sovereignty and agroecology programmes in Brazil, Cuba and other social movement
efforts in the Americas (Wittman 2009; Meek et al. 2017). Those families who described
important changes in family relations named dialogue and interaction with others
trying these radical new social relations as critical in initiating change, based on a range
of participatory, dialogue based methods that drew on feminist praxis (Patel et al. 2015;
Bezner Kerr et al. 2016).
Table 1. Farmer indicators used to assess food security.
Indicators that Farmers used to assess food security
There are more types of crops and thus food (e.g. legumes, dierent grains, tubers) to eat at home throughout the year.
Increased maize yields and number of months with low food availability reduced or eliminated
Surplus harvest is enough to sell and buy other food, soap, other basic needs, sometimes school fees, housing materials,
They do not have to prepare nsima (the main food staple) from maize husks.
They do not have to beg food from neighbours.
Field notes, GTU 2016_35, May 15, 2016.
Field notes, GTU 2016_35, May 15, 2016.
One thing, before joining the project it was so dicult for me to work together with my
husband all the work was left with me. Even when I was preparing food, if I asked him to
hold the baby he couldnt. After receiving training in gender, we are moving together. That
was such a big burden to me I had no peace at home, I was always busy and in trouble, I
was crying day and night. That is the biggest change. My husband is helping with laundry.
When I am doing other things and I have also planned to do some laundry, he will say you
can continue with what you are doing, I will do the washing, and he will even wash my
clothes. We even go together to the maize mill, and when I am busy, he will go alone.
When he can see I am busy or tired, he will say let me do the cooking. Even when I have
already started, he will stop me and say you can go do another thing, I will do the cooking
. I have seen a lot of changes in decision making. We are now able to discuss and there is
very much a freedom of expression in the past, even if I had a very good point to make, I
couldnt say anything, wondering what he might do if I said something. Now, I can express
all my ideas very freely with my husband and we can discuss together. [Why do you think
these changes have taken place?]. Because of learning about doing things together from the
project. We were trained together everyone was invited, so we were able to learn together
and come home and discuss decision making, budgeting, everything we do together as a
family - and [the project promoters and FRT] have been persistently coming and little by
little has made my family change. (GTU_C16, July 8, 2016)
Discussion and conclusion
The ndings above point to key practices that enable both epistemic and metabolic shifts,
namely feminist and participatory praxis combined with agroecology. Our ndings point
to the salience of feminist analysis, suggesting the intersectionality of agroecological
relations class and gender are crucial for attaining food sovereignty. There is still
room within dening and theorizing food sovereignty for a deeper analytical link to
gender and feminist theory (Patel 2012; Agarwal 2014; Sachs and Patel-Campillo 2014;
Park, White, and Julia 2015). Razavi (2009) notes the importance of integrating a feminist
analysis into the political economy of agrarian change, including attention to reproductive
roles and attention to issues such as the cost of inputs, rather than a primary focus on land
rights. She raises concerns that reifying the local can lead to overlooking oppressive
relations at the community and household levels (Razavi 2009, 199). This is a crucial dimen-
sion of feminist praxis as OLaughlin (2007, 41) saliently states
The feminist mandate is not trading oppression for isolation, providing women with resources
so they can make it on their own, but redressing inequality within cooperative gender
relations through reconstruction of the division of labour. This can only be a disruptive and
broad political process that cuts across households and communities.
Evidence from this long-term study in Malawi of agroecological practices demonstrate
that, through the use of participatory praxis and attention to intersectional forms of mar-
ginalization and discrimination (e.g. gender, poverty, different forms of intergenerational
and kinship struggles) can help to strengthen food sovereignty. Another form of oppres-
sion and power inequality in this region is HIV/AIDS, and over time we have explicitly
involved and adapted agroecological methods for AIDS-affected households (Nyantakyi-
Frimpong et al. 2016). Other scholars and activists have highlighted intersectionality as
key for building an agroecology movement that strengthens food sovereignty (Snipstal
2017). Scholars have emphasized the importance of convergenceof different margina-
lized groups (immigrants, food workers, African Americans), by recognizing different
histories, interests and sources of oppression to effectively build a food sovereignty move-
ment (Alonso-Fradejas et al. 2015; Brent, Schiavoni, and Alonso-Fradejas 2015). In our work
in Malawi, we have found that it was crucial to make visible the gender and health
relations that underpin changes in the production system, and to track how changes (agri-
cultural, social) are being experienced at the household and community level and beyond.
Paying attention to reproductive labour such as caring for young children or nursing sick
family members and understanding the social relations and processes embedded in that
labour is one way to ensure that food sovereignty approaches lead to positive changes in
social relations.
Our ndings also suggest that agroecological methods are viable for poor subsistence
oriented producers, who see them as a method to support their autonomy, by ensuring
that they are rural producers as opposed to being rural labourers working on estates or
other smallholdersfarms. Many farmers explicitly named agroecological methods as
methods for poor farmers, as opposed to better-omediumsmallholders. In this
sense the combination of agroecology with feminist participatory praxis has also fostered
political formation by reducing dependence on both government subsidies and corpor-
ate-produced inputs (Chinsinga 2011). These ndings support other studies that link
agroecology to building food sovereignty, with an explicit focus on smallholder farmer
autonomy and solidarity (Rosset and Martínez-Torres 2012). In contrast to other studies
(Isakson 2009), reliance on these methods didntdepend on labour migration but in fact
ended reliance on migration in several cases, providing evidence of agroecology support-
ing repeasantization and increased farmer autonomy (van der Ploeg 2014). These ndings
are in contrast to scholars who argue that agroecological methods are too labour-intensive
to be a viable means to improve food security in Africa and are in fact a sign of lack of
alternatives (Agarwal 2014; Bernstein 2014; Jansen 2015). In the case of Malawi, where
industrial approaches to agriculture have been widely promoted and subsidized by the
state, with benets for large-scale landholders and limited shifts in food security and nutri-
tion for poor households, our work suggests that agroecological methods pose a viable
alternative for poor households to improve food security and food sovereigntybut
one that requires political support and ongoing scientic research.
These ndings suggest that while both men and women are concerned about food avail-
ability and poverty, gender dynamics play a profound role in the transformative potential of
agroecology, and have crucial implications for questions of agrarian change, food sover-
eignty and equity. The reproductive labour to maintain the household is carried out
mainly by women. Nonetheless, as Razavi (2009, 198) points out, while neoclassical econom-
ists distort gender relations, by assuming a unitary household, political economists of
agrarian studies are largely silent about gender. Their focus is primarily on broader political
and economic structures and processes that interact with household relations. Achieving
food sovereignty is ultimately about power relations, and who controls food production
and distribution (Patel 2012). Much of the lived experience of contesting power happens
at the household level over incomes, decision-making and labour use, through the daily
tasks of growing food, caring for children, selling crops and so on (Agarwal 1997; Razavi
2009; Strauss and Meehan 2015). Household contestations about the division of labour,
what farming practices to use, how income is distributed, intersect with broader political
and economic processes at work in a given place. Ensuring food sovereignty in part
means nding agroecological solutions to food production that do not rely on expensive
imports of fertilizer and seed, but also means addressing issues of gender inequality, such as
domestic violence, the division of labour and unequal control over household resources in a
way that encourages participation by both men and women.
Participatory methods, such as horizontal farmer-to-farmer sharing, farmer experimen-
tation and observation, also supported a shift in socio-ecological metabolism within com-
munities. Rural households are rebuilding metabolic rifts, through a range of
agroecological practices, such as the use of compost, intercropping and crop diversica-
tion. Shifting epistemically involves rebuilding knowledge of practices that support local
ecologies, and linking these ecological changes to social materialities including explicit
attention to children and womens health and well-being. Increased knowledge and appli-
cation of these methods has improved food security, enhanced soil quality and led to
families consuming more diverse and delicious meals. Crucial to these impacts is attention
to both labour and decision-making as key sites of micro-struggles for building food sover-
eignty, and consideration of the intersection and contradictions that agroecological
methods pose for addressing both food sovereignty and gender equity.
This paper arose out of a long-term collaboration in Malawi. An earlier draft was presented at the
Food Sovereignty conference at Yale in 2013. The Malawi Farmer-to-Farmer Agroecology project,
done in collaboration with SFHC, the University of Malawi, Chancellor College, University of Manitoba
and Western University, added important observation and inspiration for the ideas discussed in the
paper. A workshop was held in Minneapolis in 2017, and we received very constructive feedback
from Rachel Schurman, Wendy Wolford, Tom Bassett, Bill Moseley, Hanson Nyantakyi-Frimpong,
Blessings Chinsinga, Alex Liebman, Heidi Gegenbach, William Munro, Emily Springer, Carmen Bain,
Elizabeth Ransom, Ron Aminzade and Matt Schnurr. The translation of Penjani Kanyimbo is gratefully
acknowledged. Four anonymous reviewers provided very helpful suggestions for revision.
Disclosure statement
Two of the authors (LD and EL) work for a farmer-led non-prot organization that does research and
training on agroecological and food sovereignty approaches. The rst two authors (RBK and CH)
have been working in a long-term partnership with this organization to conduct research on the
impacts of this approach.
This work was supported by Global Aairs Canada and Canadian FoodGrains Bank under the grant
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Rachel Bezner Kerr is an Associate Professor in Development Sociology at Cornell University. She is
a development sociologist with a background in environmental science, anthropology and inter-
national development. She currently serves on a project team of the High Level Panel of Experts
on Food Security & Nutrition of the United Nations and the Coordinating Lead Author for Chapter 5
on Food for the next Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. For the past 18 years, she
has worked with the Soils, Food and Healthy Communities organization in Malawi. She currently is
co-Principal Investigator of 2 research projects in Malawi and 1 in Tanzania. All 3 research projects
use participatory methodologies to test the impacts of agroecological approaches on livelihoods,
nutrition and sustainable land management for rural communities. She is also the director of the
Community Food Systems minor in Cornell University, which provides engaged learning experiences
for students with organizations working on sustainable agriculture and food justice issues. When she
is not working, Rachel loves hanging out with her family, gardening, hiking and participating in local
community organizing activities for social justice. Email:
Catherine Hickey has a Masters Degree in Geography, and works as a Project Coordinator at
Western University, Canada. Her work has included projects focused on agroecology, food security,
gender, climate change adaptation, policy, and maternal and child health.
Esther Lupafya is a Health and Gender Coordinator at Soils Food and Health Communities (SFHC)
Organization. She is one of the facilitators for Curriculum training using drama in the community. She
is a community nurse and holds an M.A. in Social Development and Health obtained from Queen
Margaret University (Scotland).
Laifolo Dakishoni is the Research Coordinator of the non-prot Soils, Food and Healthy Commu-
nities (SFHC) organization in Malawi. SFHC carries out participatory research with smallholder
farmers on agroecological and community-based approaches to address food security, nutrition
and social equity. He has co-authored several articles on this work.
... In Ghana, it was found that women participants' contributions during plant breeding programs are less likely to be considered in breeding programs involving men and women farmers (Nyantakyi-Frimpong & Kerr, 2015). Due to the alienation of women's voices, there has been an emphasis on breeding male-dominated crops to the neglect of landraces and crop varieties preferred by women (Bezner Kerr, Hickey, et al., 2019;Kansanga et al., 2021). This systematic exclusion of the voices of women in the breeding process has implications for women's empowerment, food security, and autonomy (Mudege et al., 2017). ...
Technical Report
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There is a need to address gender inequalities in agri-food systems (AFS) governance to close the gender gap and improve women's agency and participation in the agri-food sector. Women often face barriers that silence their voices and stifle their agency in AFS systems due to a lack of education and knowledge, which limits their ability to adopt and implement new farming techniques for improved yields. Moreover, women often are underrepresented in decision-making processes and leadership roles, which can lead to policies and solutions that do not adequately address their needs and interests. In addition, societal norms and cultural restrictions often limit women's mobility and interactions with men, hindering their participation in productive meetings and decision-making processes. Furthermore, gendered roles and tasks can disincentivize women's involvement in AFS, and traditional practices often favor men in terms of owning agricultural assets such as land. To overcome these barriers, practical approaches such as the diffusion of gender-sensitive technological innovations and the development of women's leadership skills through training can be effective in supporting women's agency in climate-related AFS governance.
... Some key topics addressed in this literature include women's rights to land and gender-responsive land reforms (Monsalve 2006;Deere 2017;Collins 2018); agroecology and women's labor and knowledge (Cid-Aguayo and Latta 2015;Bezner-Kerr et al. 2019;Trevilla-Espinal et al. 2021;Bezerra et al. 2022); Indigenous sovereignty and politics (Figueroa-Helland, Thomas, and Aguilera 2018;Ngcoya and Kumarakulasingam 2017;Grey and Patel 2014); gender justice in international food politics (Collins 2018(Collins , 2022Martignoni and Claeys 2022); feminist pedagogy and cultural resources (Schwendler and Thompson 2017;Gallar-Hernández 2021), and feminist research methodologies (Lewis 2015;Martignoni 2021). ...
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Expanding and defending women’s rights and eradicating women’s oppression have become key to La Via Campesina and its conceptualization and practice of food sovereignty. In this paper, we analyze how gender equality and feminism have gained momentum within the movement, and how the work on gender issues configures a feminist politics and praxis at the global level. As LVC celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, we examine what difference women’s decades-long struggles have made within the movement, especially since 1996, and how these have shaped the movement’s politics, both organizationally and politically. We argue that women’s activism has contributed to radicalizing food sovereignty with a feminist perspective.
... Since agroecological practices reduce external inputs, they can be cost-effective and accessible, which is important in the smallholder context where financial resources and access to inputs are often very limited. However, they may also be more knowledge and labour intensive, and therefore specifically burden marginalized groups such as women (Bezner Kerr et al., 2019a). Despite this, agroecology has been shown to improve food sovereignty, food security and nutrition (Bezner , and resilience to climate change (Snapp et al. 2021). ...
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Biodiversity is in rapid decline worldwide. These declines are more pronounced in areas that are currently biodiversity rich, but economically poor – essentially describing many tropical regions in the Global South where landscapes are dominated by smallholder agriculture. Agriculture is an important driver of biodiversity decline, through habitat destruction and unsustainable practices. Ironically, agriculture itself is dependent on a range of ecosystem services, such as pollination and pest control, provided by biodiversity. Biodiversity on fields and the delivery of ecosystem services to crops is often closely tied to the composition of the surrounding landscape – complex landscapes with a higher proportion of (semi-)natural habitats tend to support a high abundances and biodiversity of pollinators and natural enemies that are beneficial to crop production. However, past landscape scale studies have focused primarily on industrialized agricultural landscapes in the Global North, and context dependent differences between regions and agricultural systems are understudied. Smallholder agriculture supports 2 billion people worldwide and contributes to over half the world’s food supply. Yet smallholders, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, are underrepresented in research investigating the consequences of landscape change and agricultural practices. Where research in smallholder agriculture is conducted, the focus is often on commodity crops, such as cacao, and less on crops that are directly consumed by smallholder households, though the loss of services to these crops could potentially impact the most vulnerable farmers the hardest. Agroecology – a holistic and nature-based approach to agriculture, provides an alternative to unsustainable input-intensive agriculture. Agroecology has been found to benefit smallholders through improved agronomical and food-security outcomes. Co-benefits of agroecological practices with biodiversity and ecosystem services are assumed, but not often empirically tested. In addition, the local and landscape effects on biodiversity and ecosystem services are more commonly studied in isolation, but their potentially interactive effects are so far little explored. Our study region in northern Malawi exemplifies many challenges experienced by smallholder farmers throughout sub-Saharan Africa and more generally in the Global South. Malawi is located in a global biodiversity hotspot, but biodiversity is threatened by rapid habitat loss and a push for input-intensive agriculture by government and other stakeholders. In contrast, agroecology has been effectively promoted and implemented in the study region. We investigated how land-use differences and the agroecological practices affects biodiversity and ecosystem services of multiple taxa in a maize-bean intercropping system (Chapter 2), and pollination of pumpkin (Chapter 3) and pigeon pea (Chapter 4). Additionally, the effects of local and landscape scale shrub- to farmland habitat conversion was investigated on butterfly communities, as well as the potential for agroecology to mitigate these effects (Chapter 5).
... The literature increasingly reports on the contributions of agroecology to equity, justice inclusion, and to dignifying conditions through improved social well-being, sustainable livelihoods, food sovereignty and health (D'Annolfo et al., 2017;Rosset and Altieri, 2017;Anderson et al., 2019;Bezner Kerr et al., 2019Frison and Clément, 2020;Giraldo and Rosset, 2021;Petersen et al., n.d.). Such contributions are particularly important for those who are in situations of disadvantage, discrimination or vulnerability. ...
... 50 In another qualitative study, we found that women reported positive impacts from the intervention, including improvements in diets. 51 Our previous analysis also found significant improvements in household food security and wealth. 52 However, we had not previously examined the impacts on dietary diversity for women. ...
Background: Agroecological methods have the potential to impact nutrition and food security, however, to date there is limited research evaluating this approach. Objective: A 5-year participatory research project with farming households in north and central Malawi was designed to train farmers on agroecological practices, alongside raising awareness on nutrition and gender equity. This cross-sectional study aimed to explore the relationships between crop diversity, food security at the household level, and individual diversity for women, within the context of an agroecology, nutrition education, and farmer mentoring program. Methods: Participating farmers were trained in and experimented with different farming methods. These farmers subsequently trained other farmers on these short-term agroecological practices and provided mentorship using community-based educational methods designed to address both household food security and nutrition. In year 4 of the intervention, a cross-sectional survey assessed farm practices, food security, and individual dietary diversity of 851 participating households. Results: Households with lower crop diversity were significantly less likely to be food secure (odds ratios [OR] = 0.829, P < .001). Women in households with higher crop diversity were more likely to have higher individual dietary diversity (OR = 1.120, P < .01), eat vitamin A rich foods (OR = 1.176, P < .01), and legumes, nuts, and seeds (OR = 1.141, P < .01). Conclusions: These findings suggest that within a participatory agroecological training combined with community-based nutrition education with a focus on social equity, crop diversity is associated with less household food insecurity and poorer diet quality for rural farming households. Crop diversity may improve dietary diversity by making nutritious foods more available.
The current challenges facing agriculture and food systems demand innovations in system design that potentially empower the weakest component in social, economic, and environmental contexts. Recognizing women’s importance in agriculture and food systems, the agroecological business model is one solution for women to gain access to resources (land, finance, credit, etc.), empower their capacity, become entrepreneurs, and improve organic agriculture production and market. This paper focuses on agroecological business models and women’s entrepreneurship in agroecology and sustainable food systems through a scoping review through Google Scholar, Science Direct, and the FAO website. The findings highlight how the co-creation of knowledge between organic producers and female entrepreneurs can increase the efficiency of organic agriculture production. However, women’s entrepreneurship in eco-efficient organic production reinforces participatory guarantee systems, which are crucial for agroecology and sustainable food systems. The conceptual model shows the interdependence between women’s entrepreneurship, organic agriculture production, and food systems through an agroecological business model, which is a key driver for women’s access to resources and guarantees a resilient market for organic agricultural crops. This is a challenging entry point that provides opportunities for co-learning in sustainable food systems that can be shaped for significant positive change. Addressing co-learning food systems through women’s entrepreneurship is an opportunity for all stakeholders to achieve sustainability in food systems. This is critical for those involved in the agroecological transition and the achievement of sustainable development goals.
The principles of agroecology do not explicitly state a link with nutrition. Yet, we argue that among them, input reduction, biodiversity, economic diversification, social values and diets, fairness, connectivity and participation are directly linked to nutrition. Nutrition can serve as a critical outcome and driver of agroecological practices and can drive transformative change across the food system. Synergies between agroecology and nutrition are explored in this Perspective, with a view towards developing a framework to transform agroecology for improved nutrition.
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A major programme of irrigated rice extension in the Middle Senegal River Valley has further limited the river’s natural flooding in the floodplain (Waalo), initially reduced by drought. We conducted a transdisciplinary (TD) and gendered study in the region to explore links between agricultural biodiversity and family diets using a social analysis of women’s practices. The results showed how rice expansion impacts local agrobiodiversity, diet quality and the cultural way of life. Disappearance of the singular agropastoral and fishing system of the Senegal River Valley is profoundly modifying the landscape, limiting wooded riverine settings, and is undermining the traditional diversified flood-recession cropping system in the Waalo. This is causing an overconsumption of rice by reducing alternative food sources, such as sorghum, vegetables and animal products (fish, milk and meat). In particular, flood-recession sorghums are in danger of disappearing, yet they are more nutritious than rice and now sell for twice as much, or more. The way of life is being disrupted, notably sociabilities previously based on territorial complementarities, and women are disadvantaged in terms of recognition and added workload. Women’s groups have launched collective irrigated gardens, organic or not, only supported by the local NGO, but any surplus is hardly ever sold on the weekly markets in the neighbourhood. Moreover, this diet imbalance increases nutritional risk factors for health, such as vitamin and iron deficiencies, especially for women, hypertension and diabetes. We argue that, firstly, gendered TD experiences are relevant for documenting women’s activities in order for them to gain political support and, secondly, that targeting women’s care tasks gives more value and impact to TD research results.
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This paper investigates how research documented and framed the agroecology-food and nutrition security (FNS)-nexus in Africa. Our first objective is to reveal the links research in Africa has established between agroecology and FNS. Our literature review of empirical studies located in African countries, published between 1996 to 2020, consolidates evidence that agroecology has contributed to food and nutrition security. Second, we question which pathways of influence of agroecology on FNS the selected papers chose to investigate. While neo-classical economics concentrates on production and on the level of embeddedness of the agricultural activity in the capitalist markets to solve the problem of FNS, feminist economics offers new perspectives by addressing both production and the reproduction processes necessary to support production. Our analysis of literature is structured around the feminist economics concepts of physical, household, and social reproduction, as well as agency. We show that activities of reproduction linked to agroecology at the level of households and territories are scarcely documented in the investigated papers, while the documentation of the contribution of agroecology to FNS via physical reproduction activities (e.g. soil fertility) dominates. We then propose a conceptual framework linking agroecology, reproduction activities, and FNS based and also illustrate the postulate that sustainable production practices such as agroecological practices are intrinsically linked to the social activities of farmers and cultural contexts in which farmers are embedded. Viewing agroecology both as a social and ecological process concomitantly will reveal numerous pathways between agroecology and food security and nutrition and agroecology's full value.
Conference Paper
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Rabbit production is increasingly becoming a source of livelihood to many households in Nigeria. Unfortunately, a recent incidence of Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease (RHD), which is a virulent and rapidly spreading disease of rabbits adversely affected the Nigerian rabbit industry and caused significant economic loss to farmers. Hence, this study assessed the coping strategies adopted by rabbit farmers as response to the RHD outbreak in the study area. A snowball sampling technique was adopted for selecting 120 affected rabbit farmers from whom data utilized for the study were collected using structured questionnaire. The obtained data were analysed using descriptive statistics to describe the rabbit farmers based on their socioeconomic characteristics and the different coping strategies adopted; and Multivariate Probit (MVP) Regression Model to determine the factors influencing the rabbit farmersˈ adoption of coping strategies. The result from the MVP analysis revealed that age of the farmer, size of household, membership of cooperative, extension contacts, amount of credit accessed, income per rabbit production cycle, and income from other sources significantly influenced rabbit farmersˈ adoption of coping strategies. It is, therefore, recommended that the farmers should join farming cooperatives so that they can have access to useful resources and relevant information that can help them cope with the risks involved in the business. In addition, extension education and outreach should be frequently provided to the rabbit farmers to avail them of advisory services that can help with mitigating the impact of the risks involved in the business.
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This is a timely and excellent book by two world leaders of agroecological thought and practice. In this highly readable book, Peter Rosset and Miguel Altieri offer a clear analysis of the principles of agroecology and its potential to address major social, economic and environmental challenges of food and farming in the 21st century. Most notably, the book demonstrates the importance of social organization, peasant agroecology schools and social movements for bringing agroecology to scale. By focusing on the contested nature of the science of agroecology and its contemporary politics, the authors invite the reader to embrace an agroecology that transforms rather than conforms with the dominant agri-food regime. A stimulating read! Michel Pimbert, Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience, Coventry University Agroecology: Science and Politics by Peter Rosset and Miguel Altieri will be an important book that does an excellent job at summarizing what agroecology is as a science, a practice and a movement, as well as the debates that are currently going on regarding agroecology. Ivette Perfecto, George W. Pack Professor of Natural Resources, University of Michigan This small book has a very important message for the agroecology movement as well as for each of us as agroecologists. The scientific basis of agroecology and how agroecology confronts the industrial agriculture model is now broadly accepted, but how this approach can overcome the political and economic power of this model is much more controversial. This book clearly and forcefully states that agroecology must also address the politics of the food system, who has power and control, and how what might be called political agroecology must be included so that deep change can occur. We must heed this call to action! Steve Gliessman, Professor Emeritus of Agroecology, UC Santa Cruz, author of Agroecology: The Ecology of Sustainable Food Systems In this short, straightforward book, two of the world's foremost experts in agroecol-ogy team-up to lay out the historical, scientific, and political basics of agroecology. As this timely publication makes clear, the recent rise of agroecology in official discourses on hunger and climate change is not just because of agroecology's relevance to the urgent challenges of our time it is a reflection of the struggle between farmers and scientists committed to a socially and ecologically rational food system,
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This contribution examines the historically shifting reproduction strategies of southeast Mexico's small coffee producers through the lens of autonomy. It argues that producers attempt to create and occupy spaces of relative autonomy from commodity and labour markets while also struggling to exert a degree of control over their commodity market integration – termed here ‘autonomy within the market’. Recent developments in Mexico's coffee sector – falling real prices for certified coffee, an emerging quality programme led by transnational export firms, and devastating crop disease – are transforming coffee growing regions, threatening producer livelihoods and driving diverse reconfigurations of autonomous struggles.
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Social movements are using education to generate critical consciousness regarding the social and environmental unsustainability of the current food system, and advocate for agroecological production. In this article, we explore results from a cross-case analysis of six social movements that are using education as a strategy to advance food sovereignty. We conducted participatory research with diverse rural and urban social movements in the United States, Brazil, Cuba, Bolivia, and Mexico, which are each educating for food sovereignty. We synthesize insights from critical food systems education and the political ecology of education in analyzing these cases. We compare the thematic similarities and difference between these movements’ education initiatives in terms of their emergence, initial goals, expansion and institutionalization, relationship to the state, theoretical inspirations, pedagogical approach, educational topics, approach to student research, and outcomes. Among these thematic areas, we find that student-centered research on competing forms of production is an integral way to advance critical consciousness about the food system and the political potential of agroecological alternatives. However, what counts, as success in these programs, is highly case-dependent. For engaged scholars committed to advancing education for food sovereignty, it is essential to reflect upon the lessons learned and challenges faced by these movements.
Rural households employ migration as a major investment and livelihood strategy to mitigate the effects of adverse economic conditions, climate variability and food insecurity. While this is the case in most developing countries, the linkages between migration, remittances, and household welfare have not been adequately studied. This paper examines the effect of migration and remittances on the food security and asset wealth levels in rural communities in Northern and Central Malawi. Data is from a sample of 1000 rural households, collected using face-to-face structured surveys. The Household Food Insecurity Access Scale was used to evaluate the food security status of households. Results indicate that households with migrant members were (β = −0.157, p = 0.01) less likely to be food insecure and has an average treatment effect of (β = 0.151, p = 0.01) on household asset levels, indicating a positive effect on household asset accumulation. Remittance receipt had similar effects on household welfare. However, the effects of migration and remittance receipt on food security were greater than their effects on wealth. The study concludes by making relevant policy recommendations.
This paper presents the impacts of a participatory agroecological development project on food security and wealth levels. The Malawi Farmer to Farmer Agroecology project (MAFFA) encourages farmer experimentation, community involvement and farmer-to-farmer teaching on agroecology, nutrition and gender equity. Recent international assessments of agriculture have highlighted the urgent need for changes in farming practices in Sub-Saharan Africa, due to land degradation, high levels of food insecurity and anticipated climate change impacts. Agroecological approaches have shown great potential to address these multiple needs. Using a longitudinal panel survey data and propensity score matching to account for selection bias in project participation, we analyzed the impact of the project on household income and food security in Malawi in 2012 (Wave 1 = 1200 households) and in 2014 (Wave 2 = 1000 households). We used the Household Food Insecurity Access Scale (HFIAS) for impact evaluation. Estimates of average treatment-effects using difference in difference methods showed that participating in MAFFA has led to a significant increase in household wealth (β = 3.54, p = 0.01) and a large reduction in food insecurity (β = −3.21, p = 0.01) compared to non-participants, after 2 years, even after accounting for covariates and selection bias. These results indicate that agroecological methods combined with farmer led knowledge exchanges can be welfare enhancing, both in terms of food security and in terms of income for family farm households. Agroecological approaches should be promoted through upscaling of farmer-to-farmer knowledge exchanges, community involvement and attention to nutrition and social equity to enhance farmer learning and household welfare benefits.
This paper addresses the disjuncture between women's formal land rights and their attaining these in practice, examining the four agrarian reforms carried out by progressive governments after 2000 in Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, and Venezuela. It finds that while all four strengthened women's formal land rights, only the reforms in Bolivia and Brazil resulted in a significant share and number of female beneficiaries. In both countries, strong national-level rural women's movements were the main advocates behind women's land rights in a context in which they formed part of the coalition that brought these regimes to power. In Bolivia, women have benefited principally through joint titling of land to couples in the country's massive land regularization programme. Brazil's reform has been the most redistributionary, and women have benefited through the priority given to female household heads as well as the mandatory joint allocation of land to couples in the agrarian reform settlements.
This chapter focuses on gender dimensions of inequality in agriculture and rural development. The first section examines inequality on a global scale, discussing some of the major historical, economic, and institutional dynamics instrumental in shaping contemporary inequalities. A basic definition of gender is explained, and the ways in which gender inequality occurs in terms of access to productive resources is discussed. These productive resources include land, labor, inputs, and knowledge. The final section considers the ways in which the work of development practitioners, agronomists, and research scientists is embedded in the systems of inequality, and aspects to consider when designing and conducting agricultural research and extension if sustainable agricultural systems are the end goal. A case study from Northern Malawi, and examples from Tanzania and elsewhere provide specific examples of gender and other inequalities, and how agricultural research can try to address these inequalities in the approach to, and methods of, research.