The 2007-08 food price crisis and a second price spike in 2010-11 had devastating impacts on the world’s poorest people, deepening their poverty and seriously undermining their right to food. Smallholder farmers and women (60% of the world’s chronically hungry people in 2009), were disproportionately affected. The global response launched numerous new initiatives and instruments, but funding has been insufficient and policies have failed to address the global food system’s structural deficiencies, instead offering ‘business as usual.’
Ten years later, we are drifting away from the international commitment to Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2 (zero hunger). The global food-insecure population has risen since 2014, reaching 821 million in 2017, with rural women amongst the worst affected. Twenty African countries relied on external food aid in 2009; the number hit 31 in 2019. Key drivers of hunger, including violent conflict, climate change and economic instability, contribute to destitution and even famine-like conditions, as in Yemen.
A broad variety of factors led to the 2007–08 crisis.
Structural causes include:
liberalization of agriculture and trade
growing corporate concentration within the food system
decreased public investments in agriculture
reduced official development assistance (ODA) for rural development
increased effects of climate change.
These made smallholders more vulnerable to shorter-term supply and demand factors:
growing urbanization and increased demand for meat and animal feed
increasing dependence on cereals at the expense of traditional foods
greater reliance on imported food
expanded biofuel production affecting maize and soybean prices
declining global grain stocks
US dollar depreciation fueling commodity speculation
Higher production costs due to rising costs for energy.
Rice export bans and large-scale purchases by major importers such as the Philippines pushed prices further upwards. Like diversion of maize to biofuels, this created distrust of global markets. But there was great variation in ‘price transmission’ from global to domestic markets. Generally, importdependent countries had higher transmission rates, but many national policies dampened such effects.
Women and girls pay the price
The threat of soaring prices was particularly challenging for those whose rural livelihoods were already precarious. These affected food producers as well as consumers, as the overwhelming majority of small-scale farmers are net food buyers. The prohibitive cost of inputs (fertilizers, fuel, etc.) offset any opportunities higher output prices might have created.
Because agricultural gender inequalities remain strong, women farmers are particularly at risk of hunger, especially when crisis strikes. On average, rural women account for nearly half the agricultural workforce in developing countries. Despite their crucial roles in household food security, they face discrimination and limited bargaining power. Patriarchal norms create disadvantages for women farmers, specifically in land rights (small plots, difficulties attaining ownership, discriminatory inheritance rights), productive resources (no access to credit, extension services or inputs), unpaid work, insecure employment and exclusion from decision making and political representation. Within the household, because of weaker bargaining position they frequently eat least, last and least well. Women farmers who control resources generally have better-quality diets.
Women are vulnerable on all dimensions of food security: availability, access, utilization and stability. They suffer the most from macro- and micronutrient deficiencies, especially during reproductive years, with long-term negative development impacts for society as a whole.
Food-price spikes have negative repercussions for female household heads. They suffer labour market discrimination, which confines them to informal and casual employment, as well as pay inequity. Also, they frequently spend a bigger share of their family budget on food than male heads of household.
Women’s coping strategies
In times of crisis, poor households face asset losses and lower incomes. Men have more access to social capital and pathways out of crisis (their income pays past debts and secures new farm loans), whereas women often face severe time burdens, given their household food-security roles. As they usually have a weak bargaining position with regard to household income, they frequently must reduce spending on nutrition and family well-being. Indeed, households adjust to reduced food purchasing power by shifting to cheaper, less diverse diets. Women tend to buffer the impact through extreme strategies: reducing their own consumption to feed others, collecting wild food, migrating or selling assets, and even taking on risky jobs.
Agricultural policy had been put on the back burner for years, but the food price crisis made it a priority. Initial responses focused on food production support, food aid and preventing export bans. The food-security and nutrition marginalization of large populations indicated that the main issues were access and inequality, but policy discussions focused on greater production, both to stabilize prices and meet population growth.
Aid donors pledged substantial resources. The 2009 G8 Summit promised $22bn for global food security, but a large part of this recycled planned spending and included funds already expended.
The response mostly targeted staple grain productivity, rather than horticulture crops that could boost the livelihoods, food security and nutrition of smallholders, particularly women. But women were not a high priority, and even efforts that emphasized gender equality, such as the G20-World Bank agricultural assistance fund and the US Feed the Future initiative, had limited impacts because they focused on ‘market-ready’ farmers, who usually are male.
Several developing-country governments sought to bolster their populations’ ability to access food by subsidizing food prices, lowering import tariffs and imposing export restrictions. Such measures do not guarantee efficiency and sustainability or reach all vulnerable people. There were also efforts to support farmers’ access to inputs and credit which left out economically ‘non-viable’ smallholders.
Regional initiatives included buffer stocks in West Africa and Southeast Asia. Also, government commitments under the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) became more relevant. Although African Union member states agreed to allocate 10% of their budgets to agriculture, the continental average in 2017 remained 2.3%.
A new phenomenon emerged: large-scale acquisitions of millions of hectares of land in food insecure countries by governments and private companies based in wealthy countries. Between 2012 and 2016, the five leading investor countries were Malaysia, Singapore, Cyprus, the UK and China. These acquisitions often entailed eviction of smallholders from their land. Most of the crops grown on this land were intended for export.
Overall, agricultural public investment levels remain woefully inadequate today. The UN Conference on Trade and Development estimates an annual developing-country agricultural investment gap of $260bn over 2015–30. Globally, agricultural R&D and infrastructure investments frequently support exports, with little money reaching women farmers.
The food-security share of ODA has remained largely constant. Moreover, OECD data show aid with a primary focus on gender equality accounted for just 4% of bilateral allocable aid from Development Assistance Committee members in 2015–16.
Since the crisis, global policy has given the private sector a central role. Large agribusiness multinationals benefit from legal changes and new investor frameworks in Africa, with family farming largely excluded.
The UN Environment Programme has estimated that developing countries’ annual climate change adaptation costs may reach $140bn-$300bn by 2030, with much of these agriculture-related.
Currently, only 3.6% of adaptation funding ($345m in 2016) is earmarked for smallholders.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, there is already evidence of farmers migrating as temperatures increase. Marginalized communities will suffer most as food and water become less available, health risks increase and their lives and livelihoods are jeopardized.
Food security governance
The food price crisis opened the door to civil society and the scientific community to push for radical transformation of agri-food systems that takes account of environmental, social and health challenges and promotes fairness and sustainability. However, numerous parallel and overlapping initiatives and platforms deal with food security without coordination. Since the crisis, the decision-making centre has shifted uncertainly between the UN, the G8, the G20 and the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), with strong private-sector influence. The authority of FAO’s Committee on World Food Security (CFS) has been reinforced, but the recommendations it produces are voluntary in nature and therefore are often bypassed. The UN system has developed a holistic, rights-based approach to ending hunger through CFS, centred on the SDGs, promoting sustainability, and recognizing family farming’s key role. On the opposite side, some donors have provided short-term responses not always consistent with long-term needs. Policy-wise, the crisis reinforced a strong emphasis on productivity, failed to address ecological challenges and smallholders’ rights, and practically ignored gender. Increased corporate influence has resulted in a limited interpretation of ‘sustainability.’
States remain crucial players in food security governance. However, increased complexity often leads to incoherent policies. States prioritize food security, but simultaneously attempt to limit CFS’s political influence and multi-stakeholder process, prevent institutionalization of the right to food and pursue aggressive trade liberalization.
Overcoming gender-blind approaches
In many developing countries staple prices have remained volatile, with fresh price spikes in 2016 and 2017 reducing the food purchasing power of poor people. This results from gender-blind political choices that have not tackled the broken agri-food system.
Some major institutions have factored gender into their policies and strategies, ranging from the World Bank, which in 2008 recognized the importance of smallholder farmers, and especially women, in poverty reduction, to UN agencies working to empower rural women.
The CFS forum on women’s empowerment highlighted significant policy implementation gaps: in 155 countries there is still at least one law on the books that limits women’s economic opportunities. The UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas, adopted in 2018, calls on states to ‘take all appropriate measures to eliminate all forms of discrimination against peasant women and other women working in rural areas and to promote their empowerment….’
Even if increased agricultural investments target smallholders, they do not automatically benefit women. Poorly designed interventions can increase women’s decision-making marginalization and workload: if a project’s design fails to account for individual rights over household assets and does not seek to change intra-household distribution of benefits, it will likely reinforce patriarchal social norms. The questions of whether women control resources, participate in decisions about household income, meet their needs and achieve their aspirations are all crucial to achieving gender justice in agriculture. This will only happen if development policies transform women’s smallholder farming and food security roles and have an explicit gender strategy. Tools exist to help in programme design, e.g. the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index.
Women’s rights organizations and movements help advance gender equality, but aid to these organizations averaged just $225m in 2015-16.
Food security programmes lack sex-disaggregated data. This makes it impossible to track whether ODA reaches women farmers.