Women farming cassava in Sierra Leone | Photo: Annie Spratt on Unsplash
Women farming cassava in Sierra Leone | Photo: Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Lora Forsythe, June Po, Valerie Nelson, Fiorella Picchioni, Gwen Varley* |

‘How can we make food systems research and action more feminist, critical and transformative?’ This was the central question at a panel session convened by staff from NRI’s Gender and Social Difference Programme at the ‘Cultivating Equality’ International Conference in October 2021, organised by the CGIAR GENDER Platform and Wageningen University & Research. The conference focussed on research that helps to understand and advance positive synergies among sustainable and resilient agriculture and food systems, and equality in societies globally.

The panel was convened by NRI’s Associate Professor Lora Forsythe, Dr June Po, Dr Fiorella Picchioni and Professor Valerie Nelson, and explored critical feminist approaches in food systems research.

The session facilitated collaborative discussions and aimed to identify potential opportunities for radical and systemic change in food systems, exploring how feminist and gender-transformative approaches could be applied in research to understand the root causes of inequalities. Presentations showcased new research that draws on areas of feminist theory including social reproduction, geographies of care and feminist political ecology, in addition to work focusing on key areas of systemic inequality, in particular gender-based violence.

The session evolved from discussions among staff in the NRI Gender and Social Difference (GSD) Development Programme, reflecting the group’s experiences, challenges and hopes for future directions in gender and social difference research. In agriculture and food security research and practice, gender mainstreaming approaches, which refer to strategies for addressing gender equality, are critically important. However, in some cases they are characterised by depoliticisation, and a failure to tackle the causes of inequalities and their connections to broader and systemic oppressions. Nonetheless, it is an exciting time in critical feminist theory and research. Research in feminist political ecology and social reproduction is growing and gaining more attention, while emphasis on ‘gender-transformative change’ is indicative of changing discourses. This raises challenging questions on how we can do this work better by recognising multiple types of knowledge and experience, and strengthening partnerships with civil society and social movements. Furthermore, the new terminology around gender also raises the question of how to avoid the depoliticisation and instrumentalisation of the gender-transformative agenda. Who do we hold accountable and how?

Fiorella Picchioni’s presentation, entitled “Making the case for food in social reproduction approaches”, looked at how a stronger conceptualisation of food in feminist political economy can better link agriculture, production, and labour analysis with food consumption and nutritional outcomes. Her conceptualisation of food moves beyond the microlevel, and engages in analysis that links the micro, meso- and macro-levels. Her research led to discussions on complementary feeding and functional foods as examples of ‘marketed commodified solutions’ and on how feminist political economy allows us to take a step back to ask, “who benefits?” and “who has access?” to these ‘interventions’”, and more importantly, “how do these ‘solutions’ reshape the interplay between productive and social reproductive work?”. The discussion allows researchers to critically examine connections between a major food industry, women’s and men’s roles as caregivers, and female labour participation.

Gwen Varley presented findings from her research with Winnie Candiru entitled, “How insights from the reproductive justice movement challenge instrumentalism and reveal connections between women’s empowerment and children’s nutrition in Busoga, Uganda”. The reproductive justice framework is an alternative lens based in the reproductive movement by women of colour in the United States advocating for the right to choose if, when, and how to become a parent, and the right to parent with dignity. The framework links reproductive rights to other social justice issues and places women’s agency and empowerment at the centre. Their research in Busoga demonstrated how this framework can elucidate and strengthen connections between women’s empowerment and children’s nutrition. Taking into account women’s perception of family planning services and birth spacing, the research unpacked the interconnections between family planning, livelihoods, food and nutrition security and women’s empowerment.

NRI’s June Po, and Arlette Saint Ville (University of the West Indies) presented research they undertook with Amilcar Sanatan (University of the West Indies) entitled, “Daughters within RastafarI movement: critical lessons on bridging social movements and feminist influences in food sovereignty”. This research aimed to unpack the complexities of overlapping and reinforcing structural hierarchies such as race, class, gender. Applying a historical lens with the aim of promoting an understanding of institutional diversity can create space for discourse and for challenging accepted norms.

Lora Forsythe presented on the importance of examining critical feminist issues, and aligning with global research agendas led and informed by feminist organisations and movements. She highlighted the lack of data in the critical area of gender-based violence (GBV) in food systems. NRI aims to contribute to research to address this gender data gap, and Lora was recently awarded a Vice Chancellor scholarship to support a PhD student to research this topic, in addition to University of Greenwich Research Impact funding.

The discussion, moderated by Professor Valerie Nelson, focused on exploring the different types of partnerships required to facilitate transdisciplinary dialogues among researchers, practitioners and civil society groups working in the fields of agriculture, nutrition, environment, social development, and gender and food systems. The discussion also centred on the range of ‘lenses’ available for applied gender research to address inequalities in food systems, which help examine connections across individual/micro and systemic/macro levels of malnutrition, poverty, agricultural development and food systems.

Other notable presentations at the conference by NRI staff included a keynote speech by Dr Tania Eulalia Martinez-Cruz (formerly a NRI post-doctoral researcher, now working at the unit of Indigenous Peoples at FAO) on reflections and lessons on food sovereignty from Indigenous Peoples in Latin America, a presentation on women’s empowerment and crop diversification in Bangladesh by Dr Alessandro De Pinto (read the paper here), and findings from a review of practical resources for research on gender-transformative change and climate-resilient agriculture by Valerie Nelson and Lora Forsythe.

Key themes addressed during the conference’s closing plenary included “the need for systems-level change, participatory research that is responsive to women and gender inequalities, engaging with men and redefining masculinities, finding the best ways to get appropriate technologies into the hands of women, and providing equitable climate adaptation solutions.” NRI’s Gender and Social Difference Development Programme remains committed to advancing the SDGs by producing innovative and high-quality research and practice for demonstrable impact on reducing inequalities and achieving gender justice in sustainable development – find out more here.

Read the other articles in our IWD 2022 series here

Notes and links:

*Dr Gwen Varley completed her PhD in Development Studies at NRI, University of Greenwich, UK, 2022. She is currently a Postdoctoral Researcher in the Division of Rural Development at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.

The Cultivating Equality Conference 2021: Advancing Gender Research in Agriculture and Food Systems