Health Consequences of Food Production: A Feminist Perspective (Part One)

Cherise Charleswell I Women's Issues I Analysis I June 25th, 2013

The following is Part One of a Hampton Institute Research Project on Eco-Feminism, which analyzes the various health consequences of the global food production operations, distribution systems, preparation, and consumption, that affect women.

The topic of food ways and food procurement are quite complex, and have historically been discussed from an andocentric perspective, where men's life experiences are considered the norm and entirely applicable to both genders. However, feminist analytics helps to reveal that women are involved in and are greatly affected by global systems of food production, distribution, and consumption, which negatively impact the built and physical environment. An interrelationship exists between social equity and environmental destruction.1 Therefore, despite their principal role; women remain in subjugated positions, and face a number of health consequences related to the procurement and consumption of food. The World Health Organization defines health as "a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity." This definition clearly helps to assert that food production, distribution, and consumption are processes that directly impact health and well-being. For this reason, more robust interactions across disciplines should be carried out to protect the health and well-being of women. These interrelated disciplines include the fields of eco-feminism, anthropology, sociology, and public health; particularly the sub-fields of environmental health, maternal and child health, and occupational health.

Well-being may be viewed in terms of physiological responses to the environment (ie: cancer) and consumed products (i.e. diabetes), mental wellness, as well as socioeconomic status.

Eco-feminism is an amalgamation of feminist theory and ecological thinking. It involves the belief that there is a correlation between systems of patriarchal domination and exploitation of women, and that of the environment. Thus, planetary survival and sustainability must be included in discussions of food production and procurement, and women's health; and may help to form the basis for collaborative efforts between feminists and other social movement and environmental groups.

In addition, consideration must be given to the differing views and circumstances of "post-industrial/First World" feminists and " post-colonial/Third World" feminists; which affect their mode of food production and consumption; and resultantly, their overall health. For instance, "post-industrial" feminists may support the preservation of the environment for aesthetic purposes, more so than practical, and may champion the production of organic food products, while protesting the consumption of genetically modified foods (GMOs). A caricature of the post-industrial eco-feminist would be one who only consumes and buys organic foods from Whole Foods Market; all while utilizing reusable shopping bags, because she detests the environmental waste created by plastic or paper bags. While, "post-colonial" are more likely to be involved in food production and are directly vulnerable to the effects of environmental degradation and the risk of environmental hazards. Moreover, the post-colonial feminist will likely not have the financial resources needed to purchase costly organic food products.

The common ground between both groups is that they are increasingly impacted by chronic diseases, which are becoming more of an emerging global threat than infectious disease. The presence of chronic diseases, often associated with developed nations, has become a dominant health burden in many developing countries. A 2006 report of the World Bank, reported that chronic diseases accounted for 49% of death and disability globally.2 Chronic and infectious disease are both caused by environmental agents and conditions; however, chronic diseases are also largely a result of what and how much of a substance or needed nutrient is consumed. For example, excessive sodium intake, which is increasingly problematic, due to the high percentage of salt in processed foods increases the risk of developing hypertension.

Globally, women are very much involved in the production of food, where they make up a large component of the workforce. Women play a pivotal role and are responsible for much of global food production. In Sub-Sahara Africa and the Caribbean they produce 80% of basic foodstuffs, while providing 50 to 90% of the agricultural labor force in Asia.3 These women are migrant workers, rural farmers, and/or work for larger and often exploitative agribusinesses. The Women, environment, and development (WED) approach is one that is characteristically utilized by Third World Feminists to address the role of and consequences women face due to the environmental degradation that results from food production.

In carrying out food production, women are exposed to a number of occupational and environmental hazards, such as pesticides, that directly and often critically impacts their health. A number of these pesticides and other toxic, fat-soluble chemicals disproportionately affect women, because women have larger fat stores than men, which in evolutionary terms provide the needed insulation and "cushion" for developing fetuses. This aspect of anatomical and evolutionary biology explains why many diseases associated with food production and exposure to environmental hazards negatively impact reproductive health. Pesticide exposure has been associated with an increased risk for malignant lymphoma, leukemia, multiple myeloma, as well as liver, stomach, pancreatic, lung, and brain cancer.4 It has also been linked to Parkinson's disease, along with a host of reproductive health issues. Reproductive risks of pesticide exposure include: sterility, spontaneous abortion, stillbirth, congenital malformations, and other birth defects; while exposure to herbicides increases the risk of ovarian cancer.5 The effects of these chemicals are also greatly harmful for breastfeeding mothers, and a number of pesticides are known to shorten the duration of lactation; which ultimately affects the developmental health of the children of food producers. A hallmark benefit of breast feeding is the transfer of immunoglobulin's, which helps to build up the child's immune system, from mother to infant; however the children born to mothers who are affected by environmental hazards due to their work in food production and are unable to breastfeed, will resultantly have a higher risk of contracting an infectious disease.

Low-income women in developing countries often live and work in rural areas, and the agricultural sector provides their primary source of employmen. 6 Worldwide, the agricultural sector pays some of the lowest wages, despite the great investment in time and energy needed to plant and harvest crops. As a result, women or young girls may forego or delay educational attainment in order to become full-time wage earners. Aligned with patriarchal modes and practices motivated by cultures and/or interpretations of religious sanctions3, high rates of illiteracy have acted as a barrier to women's freedom and options for social mobility.

Also, the lower wages that women earn, which are exacerbated by the global wage gap, remain an economic burden that locks women into poverty and further subjugation. Male domination over the operations and resources of food production perpetuates gender inequalities in access to and control over crucial resources; such as land and formal finance. In essence, women face a double burden -- that of being poor and being a woman. A number of microfinance organizations and co-ops, such as the Grameen Bank, directly focus on this critical barrier for independence and socioeconomic mobility; however only a fraction of international programs for development address the matter of gender equity.

Being locked into low wages and a lower socioeconomic status predisposes women to negative health outcomes. Socioeconomic status is a hallmark "social determinant of health." Social determinants of health are economic and social conditions that influence the health of people and communities.6 Expectedly, these conditions are shaped by the amount of money, power, and resources that people have. The correlation between income and health status is that of a "social gradient" in health, where those with higher incomes do better over a range of health and well-being outcomes. Along this gradient, every step up the socioeconomic ladder leads to an increase in health. In essence, poverty is linked to a lack of access to assets, health services, and safe housing.

Overall, women's significant role in food production and the low-wage earning agricultural sector, where they are exposed to a plethora of occupational and environmental risks, has a direct and explicitly negative impact on their overall health and well-being.


1. MacGregor S. (2012) Feminist perspectives on sustainability. Encyclopedia of Life Support System. Retrieved from

2. Prakash D. (2003). Rural women, food security, and agricultural cooperatives. Rural Development Management Centre, Rural Women, Food Security and Agricultural Cooperatives, New Delhi.

3. Gwyn K. (1997). Ecofeminism and environmental justice: Bridges across gender, race, and class. Frontiers: A Journal of Women's Studies. 18(2):2-20.

4. Gay J. (2006). Feminism, environmental justice, toxic dumps and pesticides. Political Environments. (7). Retrieved from

5. Mehra R, Hill-Rojas M. (2008) Women, food security and agriculture in a global marketplace. International Center for Research on Women. Retrieved from

6. Commission on Social Determinants of Health (CSDH), Closing the gap in a generation: health equity through action on the social determinants of health. Final report of the Commission on Social Determinants of Health . 2008, World Health Organization: Geneva.$FILE/Rural%2BWomen%2Bcoops.pdf