Female farmers tend to be more committed to sustainability than their male counterparts, yet they are underrepresented when it comes to making EU agricultural policy, raising broader questions over whether the farm sector can achieve a green transition.
“There is more and more literature establishing the link between gender and sustainability, especially regarding sustainable farming practices,” Faustine Bas-Defossez, external impact director at the Institute for European Environmental Policies (IEEP) — a think tank — told a roundtable at POLITICO’s Future of Food and Farming Summit.
On average, 29 percent of EU farms are headed by women, according to Eurostat. But that varies greatly across the bloc, with 45 percent of Latvian and Lithuanian farms led by women in 2016, and only 5 percent of Dutch farms.
“It’s clear that agriculture has been and is still largely patriarchal,” said Anne-Catherine Dalcq, a Belgian dairy farmer and vice president of the European Council of Young Farmers. During the roundtable, she said there was still a need for “sociological change” in how women are perceived in agriculture.
That’s something that fertilizers giant Yara is trying to address, after a global survey found that only 14 percent of its 800 agronomists are women. “Although regional differences exist, these results show that breaking traditional stereotypes in the field is a challenge,” Tiffanie Stephani, director for EU government affairs at Yara International, told the panel. It led the company to launch its “Woman in Agronomy” program last year to “not only tackle the symptom, but also the root cause” of gender imbalance in the sector, notably using mentoring.
Corteva, the U.S. agricultural chemical and seed company, also conducted a study in 2018 looking at challenges faced by female farmers. “The main conclusion was that they are facing discrimination,” said József Máté, Corteva’s corporate communication leader for Europe. “This translates into difficulty in accessing financing, technology, and also the ability to access education and training.”
“If you look at the agriculture universities, in some countries, you’re missing women, or when they graduate, they don’t work in agriculture anymore. So we need to make it attractive afterwards,” Máté added.
Corteva launched its “Talenta” program, which provides access to financing through a system of awards. “We provide education on how to grow a business, how to manage a farm. And after the course, we will support the implementation of the three best ideas,” Máté said.
The specific challenges faced by women in agriculture often aren’t adequately recognized. “I’m going to try to be a mother and to have my dairy cows, but maybe if it’s too much, and if I don’t have enough money to pay someone to help me, I will stop,” Dalcq said.
Impact on sustainability
Research shows that conventional agriculture “is reported as masculine and characterized by gender inequalities in terms of wages, access to opportunities, technologies, and land,” Bas-Defossez said, noting that because “women are traditionally assigned to administrative tasks, direct sales or diversification activities,” it makes their work “invisible.”
That is leading female farmers to be “more involved in alternative and environmentally friendly approaches” to farming, Bas-Defossez said. “Sustainable agriculture is seen by women also as a way to be empowered, as a means of emancipation. And it’s also seen as a way to challenge the traditional gender division of agricultural work.”
In a research note published last year, the IEEP found that EU agriculture policymaking is also male-dominated. “One straightforward conclusion is that the [Common Agricultural Policy] decision making is gender unequal,” Bas-Defossez said.
There was no female MEP rapporteur during the 2013 reform of the CAP and only 25 percent of the shadow rapporteurs were women, the IEEP noted; while there was only one female MEP rapporteur during the 2021 CAP reform and 33 percent of shadow rapporteurs were women.
“Considering that when, in a position of power, women tend to drive more environmentally friendly decisions, the question is: Would there be a difference in the environmental ambition of the Common Agricultural Policy for example, if the decision-making bodies were a little bit more gender-balanced?” Bas-Defossez asked.
Dalcq, the dairy farmer, said she was “shocked” by the numbers and “this really imbalanced situation.”
She suggested potential solutions to address male dominance in agriculture, citing the creation of women’s networks where they can share “how they work, how they combine work and private life” and awareness-raising campaigns about female farmers. She also advocated investments in making work less arduous and the need to make farming attractive to women by ensuring a fair income.
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