Transforming Food Systems through Critical Feminist Research

Gender mainstreaming approaches in agriculture and food security research and practice are critically important, but in some cases are characterised by depoliticization. The latter means that on-going struggles between actors, agency, power inequalities and root cause causes and solutions are insufficiently tackled. Developments in feminist theory, such as feminist political ecology and social reproduction theory, have offered a rich approach that foregrounds such issues in research in natural resource, food systems and the care economy. Feminist theory also points to the need for improved global linkages between food and agriculture researchers/practitioners with women’s social movements. However, there are inherent barriers of application of feminist approaches in agriculture and food systems research and practice, and transdisciplinary approaches more generally. The session seeks to facilitate a collaborative discussion on ‘how we can make food systems research and action more feminist, critical and transformative?’ and to identify potential opportunities for radical and systemic change in food systems. The objectives of the session are to explore i) how feminist and gender-transformative approaches can be applied in research and action, by highlighting new research and emerging insights in areas such as social reproduction, geographies of care, feminist political ecology, and ii) different types of partnerships based on transdisciplinary dialogue involving agriculture, nutrition, environment, social development, gender and food systems researchers, practitioners plus civil society groups. The group discussion will culminate in identifying potential ways of improving research and action for gender justice and transformative change.



Lora Forsythe, June Po and Valerie Nelson, University of Greenwich, UK Fiorella Picchioni, University of Greenwich, UK

Contested development tool and rural transformation: a social reproduction critique on financialised services in agriculture.
The pandemic has exacerbated the crisis of social reproduction by bringing into plain sight contradictions between increasingly financialised capitalist systems and multiple complex social reproduction needs in the global South. Small-scale credit if often exalted in mainstream agriculture interventions and development thinking as a key means of supporting women and their families in dealing with daily, ongoing, and often slow-onset climate disasters in Cambodia and Tamil Nadu (India). This paper critically explores how such developmental discourses and tools have paradoxically deepened the social reproduction crisis. In particular, women have been specifically targeted as ‘reliable’ borrowers as they often manage agricultural productivity and take responsibility for the nutritional wellbeing of their households. Yet, the pandemic has reshaped strategies for social reproduction, and in doing so, has put the very form of their organisation in question. This presentation reviews mixed-method data collected between 2020-2021 in Cambodia and Tamil Nadu to highlight the long-term gendered dynamics of debt taking and how this contributes to multiple forms of material and experiential depletion. We argue that a more systematic analysis is necessary to: 1) highlight the long term and everyday erosion that capitalism exerts on social reproduction; and 2) move beyond the pandemic discourse and mainstream developmental narratives that stress financial inclusion. Therefore, when thinking about financial inclusion for improved resilience among rural communities (and beyond) we need to critically interrogate the mechanisms though which these tools provide long-term sustainable responses to transform food systems.


Gwen Varley, University of Greenwich, UK

How insights from the reproductive justice movement challenge instrumentalism and reveal connections between women’s empowerment and children’s nutrition in Busoga, Uganda
Predominant theories of the pathways between women’s empowerment and children’s nutrition outcomes rely on instrumentalist ideas of women’s roles and labour. These include theories that empowering women will result in improved nutrition outcomes for children because of 1) women’s role as primary caregiver, 2) women’s physiological contributions to reproduction, or 3) women’s choices about how to allocate household resources. I argue that the logical foundation of each of these theories is weak, and that a conceptual framework built on principles of the reproductive justice movement is both more theoretically coherent and more likely to result in transformative change in development practice. I demonstrate the latter point by presenting empirical evidence from Busoga, Uganda that illustrates how the use of a reproductive justice lens revealed key issues relevant to both women’s empowerment and their children’s nutrition. Furthermore, a reproductive justice lens shows how the pathways between women’s empowerment and children’s nutrition can be bidirectional. That is, women’s empowerment can improve children’s nutrition, and improving their children’s nutrition can also be empowering for (some) women. These results reaffirm the epistemological strength of feminist theory and suggest the dispensability of the common trope of women’s empowerment as an instrument for achieving other objectives, rather than a development objective with equal intrinsic value.


Arlette Saint Ville, June Po, Amilcar Sanatan, The University of the West Indies, Trinidad and Tobago
Daughters within Rastafari movement: Critical lessons on bridging social movements and feminist influences in food sovereignty

Small island developing states of the Caribbean, as the world’s first colonialized spaces, have experienced land contestations throughout history. This has contributed to persistent poverty and food and nutrition insecurity, that are exacerbated by rapid environmental change. Efforts to engage communities and re-imagine futures around food systems in the CARICOM, remain underdeveloped with the exception of Indigenous Peoples and groups that advance alternatives to dominant food security paradigms. One such group is the Rastafari (circa 1930) that comprised an underclass of enslaved African descendants who established a movement that was self-sufficient and produced food as community. This historical case study of Rastafari Daughters traces an alternative approach to women’s empowerment differing from a western theory of gender equality. From what was observed as a male dominated Rastafari social structure and doctrine to a gradual manifestation of Daughters’ commitment to Rastafari, the case study shows how feminists progress are often negotiated and challenged within social movements themselves. In the broader context of initial colonial state repression and post-colonial systemic discrimination, an undercurrent questioning of gender equality spread region-wide, with influences on recent rapprochement around reparations, decriminalization of marijuana, agricultural cooperatives, and food self sufficiency programmes. As a cultural alternative, the movement led by Rastafari presents a place-based understanding of the underappreciated interconnectivity between women’s empowerment, community self determination, environmental sustainability, and food sovereignty.


Lora Forsythe, University of Greenwich, and Petra Abdulsalam-Saghir - Federal University of Agriculture Abeokuta (FUNAAB) Nigeria
The role of social movements in addressing gender-based violence in food markets in southern Nigeria

Women's social activism in southern Nigeria has historically, to a significant extent, been organised around food: food production, processing and trading. This paper examines the role of food chains, with particular reference to cassava, as an organising factor in gender justice movements in the country. Food markets in Lagos and other urban areas of the country have been the site of both gender-based violence, oppression and activist responses. There are endemic issues of extortion and corruption among police whereby primarily female market traders are vulnerable, and issues of abusive police enforcement measures under COVID-19 that have put the primarily female traders and retailers at food markets in Lagos at risk of increasing physical and sexual violence. Examining women’s participation in the EndSars movements, we find that their activism is also responding to the gendered oppression of women in food spaces. The measures of the state in "controlling" of the virus and response of women farmers and traders are rooted in the strong history of oppression and protest. Cases of tapioca retailers, and cassava farmers in Nigeria have had notable impacts in challenging oppression and inequality rooted in colonialism, corporatism and male oppression. This paper will provide a gendered and food justice lens to current social movements in southern Nigeria and how they have responded to gender-based violence. The implications of the findings are the need and responsibility of international food systems projects and research to recognise the socio political contexts in which they are working and participate in broader movements of emancipation.