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How the Commodification of Organic Agriculture Marginalizes Women Farmers

By: Nicole Pham-Quan

The organic agriculture movement in Canada and the United States is known for promoting socio-ecological sustainability. However, as large corporations have commodified the movement into a booming industry, the ethical principles of organic agriculture and the movement’s strides towards gender equality are at risk of being undermined.

Organic agriculture was developed as a more sustainable and holistic alternative to conventional and industrial agriculture. It promotes the health of soil, plants, animals, people, and communities. However, large corporations have now embarked on the production of organic food products as they have recognized the consumer demands for cleaner and healthier produce and the profitability of the industry. The intensification of corporate production of organic food is referred to as the commercialization or commodification of organic agriculture.  The organic farming movement has criticized this process for centralizing control and profit amongst large corporations and marginalizing small-scale farmers. Environmental scholars are equally critical; they conceptualize commodification as the organic agriculture movement being bought out by capitalist actors, who are narrowly focused on profit, disregard the organic philosophy, and cause ecological exploitation.

The corporate commercialization of organic agriculture is not only detrimental to the original tenents of the organic farming movement, but also to gender equality in the industry.

First of all, the commercialization of organic agriculture contributes to gender inequality by marginalizing small-scale farms, of which women farmers make up a significant proportion. According to Martha McMahon’s research on Canadian organic agriculture, nearly 80 percent of farms run exclusively by women have annual receipts of less than $50,000 CND, since women organic farmers typically operate small-scale farms with fewer resources due to limited access to land, capital, and credits compared to their male counterparts. The commodification of organic agriculture concentrates wealth amongst large corporations and deprives women and small-scale farmers of economic opportunities.

The increasing commodification of organic agriculture contributes to gender inequality as it distances women from productive labor. Scholars assert that the organic agriculture movement has neither recognized the gendered nature of labor nor promoted women farmers’ empowerment. Compared to men’s farm work, women’s tasks on organic farms tend to be more labour-intensive and largely unmechanized; women are more prominent than men in hand weeding, harvesting, bookkeeping, processing, and taking care of livestock.

Moreover, women farmers in organic agriculture are often expected to shoulder the burden of unpaid household and care work. The commercialization of the industry exacerbates the existing unequal and gendered division of labour. Scholars assert that commodification separates farm production from household reproduction and shifts women’s labour to the more marginalized farm support tasks, such as running errands and making and transporting meals to their spouses and workers. Large corporations will also increase farm size and implement more forms mechanization, which favours men’s labour participation over women’s. Additionally, large corporations may seek agricultural labour from male, migrant workers, which often excludes women’s labour participation.

To resist the productivist paradigm of large-scale, capitalist farms, it is important to support small-scale, women-run organic farms! A farm that you can check out is Akachi Farms, which is run by Buchi Onakufe and located at Kortright Centre for Conservation in Vaughan.

For further research on women’s participation and measures to promote women’s agency in organic agriculture, read the report commissioned by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), called Organic Agriculture and Womens’ Empowerment Studies!

Featured image source: National Geographic


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