Female food heroes are feeding the world

GROW, News, Opinion article written on the 20 Jun 2013

With a staggering 870 million people — or one in eight — going hungry on the planet each night, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the scale of global hunger and think it’s a problem too big to solve.

It’s easy to think the problem of hunger has always been with us, and always will be.

But when we see that it’s not caused by a lack of food being produced, but rather because of issues like food going rotten, particularly in poor countries, there’s no road to get it to market, a lack of access to land, water and fertilisers, or changing weather patterns, we begin to see there are ways we can start to break down this problem and actually begin to tackle it.

For example, in Lembata, Indonesia, fishers with small boats and nets are limited in the catch they can make, but even when a good catch is made, without refrigerated transport and storage, many fish are simply becoming food for maggots.

Fishers could sell more of their catch and make a living for themselves and their families if these simple investments were made.

Interestingly, roughly the same amount of food goes to waste in poor and rich countries — around 30 per cent. But of course in rich countries like Australia, it’s because food is thrown away.

The bitter irony for millions of hungry people in our world is that they are in fact the ones who produce food — they are small farmers, fishers, forest foragers or landless labourers. And more than half of the world’s hungry are women.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation points out that if women farmers had the same access to the resources — such as training or credit — that poor men do, between 100 million and 150 million more people would have enough to eat. It’s women who often know what local solutions are needed to tackle hunger, but they need more support to do it.

Oxfam has heard the stories of many “female food heroes” in Indonesia, women who are successfully growing food throughout the vast nation. With a little more investment, these women could do so much more.

For example, Susana Kewa, 54, grows tomatoes, peanuts, sawi (mustard leaf) and eggplant. But she struggles to access water. “There is a problem with the water,” she says. “It is a long way away. It is hard for us older women … we need a machine to dig and pump it up [and] channel it [to our crops].”

Then there is Maria Miseri Baha, 33, who grows coconuts, cashews, bananas and sweet potato. “I also have 30 chickens. The problem is they die easily.” Maria needs support to be more successful in her farming.

She explains she needs “vaccines for my chickens [but also] tools to grind [my corn]…which I would then fry and sell as a local food snack”. Given small-scale farmers like these around the world feed millions of people, simple investments could pay huge dividends in the fight to reduce global hunger.

Australia has an opportunity to help poor farmers become more resilient, get more food to market and farm in more productive and ecologically sustainable ways.

We could do this by doubling the amount of money within our aid program spent on improving food security for the world’s poorest people, which is currently just over half the level it was in 2002-03.

It’s an injustice that the world produces enough food for everyone, but that so many people miss out. Australia can contribute to ending this injustice.  

This opinion editorial by Oxfam Australia Chief Executive Dr Helen Szoke was first published in The Australian Women’s Weekly on 20 June 2013.