The Essential Role of Women in Agriculture, Especially in the Developing World

March 8, 2011 By Chris Policinski President and CEO Land OLakes Inc.

As it is International Women’s Day, I want to share with you a speech I gave last week at a Women Thrive Worldwide event about the important role women play in agriculture:


Good morning. I’m very pleased to be here and very proud to represent Land O’Lakes as the sponsor of the third annual International Women’s Day Breakfast.

Some of you may be familiar with the saying:

“Women hold up half the sky.” 

It’s an old proverb and the title of a best-selling book on the status of women in the developing world.  The meaning, of course, is that women play a vital role in our societies.  And that’s certainly true. 

But it’s also true that around the world, women – especially women in developing countries – face significant challenges in securing the most basic necessity for their families – food.

 That’s in spite of the fact that women are the backbone of agriculture, and an important driver of food production. 

 Worldwide, 36 percent of the world’s farmers are women – compared with 34 percent for men.  In developing regions, the figure is much higher.  In Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, 60 to 70 percent of farmers are women – exceeding the percentage of men in both regions.

So, it’s a sad irony that women — the majority of the world’s farmers – still face food insecurity.

As a major agricultural cooperative and food manufacturer, Land O’Lakes is doing something about that. 

For more than 30 years, addressing food insecurity in the developing world has been a driving force for the Land O’Lakes International Development Division, which implements programs funded by USDA and USAID.  These programs provide both humanitarian and economic development assistance, often with a focus on women. 

We’ve also made alleviating hunger the central platform of our charitable efforts, with more than $2 million dollars a year in funding and product donations going specifically to hunger relief. 

As we prepare to celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8, it’s an appropriate time to hold this event. 

By bringing together leaders in government and business, we can raise awareness of the vital role women play in agriculture, and the importance of supporting economically sustainable development programs that assist women and effectively address global food insecurity.

Former Secretary-General of the U.N., Kofi Annan, once said:

“There is no development strategy more beneficial to society as a whole than the one that involves women as central players.”

I would agree with that observation.  And over the next few minutes, I’d like to share a few additional observations that I hope will be valuable as we consider the path forward — especially as we grapple with reductions in government spending and the impact they may have on our foreign affairs budget. 

I’ll start with a little background on Land O’Lakes and the lessons we’ve learned in 90 years as an agricultural cooperative, and more than 30 years of involvement in international development. 

I’d also like to talk about what we see ahead, in terms of the growing global demand for food, and the role America — and American agriculture — must play in feeding a hungry world. 

So, first, a little background on Land O’Lakes.

I should say at the outset that – as the CEO of a major food and agriculture cooperative – my perspective may be a little different than business leaders from publicly-held companies. 

That’s because of the unique role Land O’Lakes members play in the food cycle.

Our members are not just business people.  They’re farmers.  They spend more time on tractors than in the board room, and they have very close and long-term connections to the land and to the people who work the land to feed our families and a growing world population. 

Our members also know – from 90 years of experience – that the cooperative system works for small farmers … who – when successful – tend to become larger operators over time. 

Land O’Lakes was formed in 1921 by a small group of dairy producers who believed that by joining together in cooperation, they could have more control over their economic destiny.  And they were right.

Today, Land O’Lakes is a major force in agriculture – generating more than $11 billion dollars in annual revenues, and returning a significant share of our earnings to members.  

Our cooperative serves, directly or indirectly, more than 300,000 producers, with a business that spans the “farm-to-market” spectrum. 

With that background, it’s not surprising that back in the early 1980s, when our members looked beyond their own communities to the larger world community, they saw a need and knew they could make a difference.

Our members believed that by applying cooperative principles internationally, farmers in the developing world could benefit in the same way Land O’Lakes members had benefitted.  That was the impetus for forming our International Development Division in 1981.

Since then, our IDD group has facilitated 260 development projects in 76 nations — feeding millions of people, and enabling millions more to feed themselves by building agricultural infrastructure, know-how and capability. 

The programs we implement benefit everyone involved, but many have components that are specifically tailored to the needs of women. 

That’s because while women are strong in number in agriculture, in the developing world women also face obstacles. 

Cultural barriers and traditions often block women from decision-making roles, and prevent them from securing the resources they need to become more efficient and profitable. 

Through the programs we implement, women gain greater access to resources, training and assistance in agricultural productivity and in creating their own producer groups and cooperatives.

Over the past 10 years, for example, Land O’Lakes has implemented the co-op model in several African countries, bringing together dairy-farmer groups – many of which are women’s groups – to secure credit, access agricultural inputs and profitably market their milk.

To promote better nutrition, we implement school nutrition programs that have fed 1.6 million children in developing countries.  This has revitalized education for girls. 

In one province in Pakistan, for example, more than half of the government-sponsored schools for girls closed because of poor attendance.  After daily nutritional supplements were provided, girls’ enrollment grew 200 percent … 175 closed schools re-opened … and 500 new schools were built.

Another program that has made a tremendous difference is being implemented in Malawi.  Through this initiative, 2,600 dairy farmers – 40 percent of whom are women – were each able to acquire a cow.  They also were trained to care for the animal, joined a producer organization, and became linked to a market for their milk.

These women earn about $1,200 a year from dairy farming alone – a 250 percent increase from what they previously earned through subsistence farming. 

And they use the additional income to improve their children’s diets, send them to school, pay for medical care, and purchase fertilizers to increase their crop yields, which provides greater food security.

… All this from a single cow.

So, what have we learned through our experiences?

– One very important lesson is that by tailoring programs to women and helping them take part, and by engaging men to encourage a more accepting view of women’s participation, positive changes do occur. 

– We’ve seen the results first-hand.  Farming operations become more productive and profitable.  Farmers work together to access markets for their products.  And the income generated provides greater food security and a range of other benefits.  

– Another clear lesson is that cooperative principles work in developing countries, just as they work here in the U.S.  They work because of a very simple concept.  As people strive to improve their lives, they can accomplish more together than alone. 

– Finally, we learned that effective development programs come in all shapes and sizes. 

Sometimes the programs are broad and ambitious.  But sometimes, simple approaches – like helping one family acquire one cow – can make a big difference to the people who participate directly, and to the communities that benefit indirectly. 

Now, I’d like to talk just briefly about the bigger picture.

As we look ahead, we see a growing demand for food worldwide.  The global population is expected to increase from about 6.8 billion people today to 9 billion people by 2050 – with the largest share of that increase in the developing world. 

To feed this growing population, we’re going to need to increase food production by about 70 percent.

There’s no doubt that American farmers will play a major role in meeting this challenge.  Our farmers have proven that through the use of modern production practices and the application of safe, beneficial technologies, they can deliver amazing results. 

Over the past six decades, U.S. agriculture productivity has increased 250 percent.  For example: 

– Milk production per cow tripled …

– Soybean production doubled … and

– Beef production per head is up by 50 percent. 

To bring this back to the individual farmer, back in the 1930s, the average American farmer fed 10 people.  Today that farmer feeds more than 150 people.  It’s also important to emphasize that today’s farmer is doing more with fewer resources and less impact on the environment. 

To give you just one example, when we compare corn production in 1930 with 2010, there was a 650 percent increase, while using 13 percent less land.  That’s authentic sustainability.  

Becoming more productive and efficient has also been very good for U.S. consumers.  If consumers were spending the same percentage of their income on food as they did in 1930, we would have $1.6 trillion dollars less to spend on other things – like investments and savings.

Clearly, the great productivity story of agriculture is a story worth telling.  Yet, ironically, as America’s farmers have become more productive, there are fewer people to tell that story. 

Today, only 2 percent of Americans are directly involved in agriculture.  That means 98 percent of our own population may have a very limited understanding of agriculture and how food security affects all of us. 

As we tell this story, it doesn’t stop at our own shores.  We also have to tell the global story … to expand public understanding of why global food security is so important … and why we can’t abandon the programs that are changing lives and building vibrant rural economies around the world.

As I look out over the audience today, and see many familiar faces, I recognize that I may be preaching to the choir.

Some of you I know from my time on the Board of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition

— a group of leaders that supports a strong foreign affairs budget and a “smart power” approach, which is elevating diplomacy and development, along with defense, to build a better, safer world.

Some of the familiar faces I see here are long-time friends of agriculture, international development and Land O’Lakes.

So, it’s probably safe to say that many people in this room do understand the importance of the U.S. government playing an active role in international development, and promoting the role of women in agriculture. 

All we have to do is turn on the TV to see that when people don’t have enough to eat, political and social instability follow. 

Just consider what we’ve seen in Egypt, Tunisia and other countries over the past few weeks.  To be sure, there are many issues at play when people rise up against their governments.  But food costs and food security play a big role. 

The United Nations reports that the worldwide food price index is at an all-time high – surpassing its 2008 peak, when rising food costs pushed 64 million people into poverty.  

While Americans enjoy relatively stable food prices, spending around 10 percent of our income on food, in Egypt, for example, food costs consume about 40 percent of monthly income, and citizens of other countries also spend a large percentage of their income on food. 

As the cost of food increases — making food security an issue for more people – we have the potential to see even greater discontent. 

Around the world — and right here in the United States – when people are hungry there are riots in the streets.  And when peace and security are threatened in one place, it quickly affects the global community. 

But if I’m preaching to the choir today, there’s a larger congregation that needs to hear the message.  A recent poll found that Americans vastly overestimate the amount of foreign assistance provided by the United States. 

Most of those surveyed thought the U.S. spends 25 percent of its budget on foreign aid.  In fact, just over one percent of the federal budget currently goes to foreign assistance.  And when Americans are asked where budget cuts should be made, foreign aid often tops the list. 

The question is … is the one percent of our budget spent on foreign aid delivering value?

Speaking for Land O’Lakes – an organization that for three decades has implemented these programs – our answer would be a resounding “yes.” 

International development programs do deliver value, not only by enhancing the quality of life for millions of people, but also by helping people in developing countries become more self-sufficient. 

Some people think of foreign aid as a “hand-out.”  But our experience at Land O’Lakes has demonstrated that the best programs provide a “hand-up” … with a path toward independence. 

In agriculture in the developing world, we’re often extending a hand to women, because in a very real sense, women are the heart of their families and their communities.  

I started my remarks by saying “women hold up half the sky.”  They do.  But that can be a pretty daunting task, and a little help along the way can make a world of difference. 

As business leaders, as government leaders, let’s make our voices heard.  Let’s express our support for programs that are changing lives … and helping to stop the vicious cycle of hunger and poverty wherever it exists.

 Thank you very much.

 Both Land O’Lakes and Women Thrive Worldwide are members of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition.