By Robert Fox
As I was strolling through the Ottawa farmers’ market, filling my basket with asparagus and spring garlic, freshly milled oats and cheese from contented sheep, all from nearby farms, I was reminded of the many women I’ve met over the past year who have a different experience of food.
Some were struggling to grow enough to feed their families. Others were scrambling to earn enough to pay soaring prices. Some went without to ensure their husbands, sons and daughters – in that order – would not face hunger.
But all of them were clear that we need to make big changes in the way we grow and share food – and many were already mobilizing to fix a food system that’s broken.
I met with women in Ethiopia who step-by-step have shifted from growing only millet and buying all the rest of their food to diversifying their farms. The result? Year-round harvests, healthier diets and better incomes – including enough cash to pay their daughters’ school fees.
In Zimbabwe, I met women who had created bountiful communal vegetable gardens with drip irrigation and organic composting. The result? Better nutrition, critical to the success of treatments for HIV and AIDS.
In South Africa, I visited a cooperative of women farmworkers who after decades picking grapes and Granny Smiths on the big commercial farms had started to grow mushrooms, selling to the upscale restaurants in Cape Town’s winery region. The result? They were paid as much for 100 grams of shitakes as they normally earned for two days of hard labour.
These are just a few of the success stories from Oxfam partners in Africa, the Americas and Asia – courageous and creative women who are tackling the underlying causes of hunger and poverty.
But their grassroots efforts can’t survive – much less thrive – unless there is fundamental shift in the global food system – a system that creates enormous profits for an ever smaller number of companies while leaving an ever larger number of people hungry.
Cartels. Climate Change. Land grabs. Water shortages. Speculators. Biofuels. All are playing a role in hiking prices, reducing harvests and distorting distribution.
On top of this, you layer the discrimination and prejudice that marginalizes women, undercutting their ability to own land, build assets and get a fair price for their produce and labour.
It’s an obscene irony that rural women and their families – most of them farmers, herders, harvesters and fishers – make up the bulk of the most poor and malnourished on this planet. It makes no sense. But it’s the truth. And we can change it.
Oxfam’s GROW campaign aims to do just that – to galvanize the power of producers and consumers around the world to build a new food system that assures all of us enough food always.
As I set out tomatoes and savour the first greens from my own garden, I feel a connection with those women in Africa who take such pride in what they’ve managed to do with so little.
And I sense the common cause which draws us together – me from a position of privilege and plenty – to tackle the vested interests and complacency which puts the future of the planet and its food system in peril.
We know what to do. We just need to do it.