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

Cherise Charleswell I Women's Issues I Analysis I October 3rd, 2013

The following is Part Two 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.

Globally, women and girls are actively and directly involved in the processing, packaging, and distribution of food, and these activities expose them to a number of health consequences; including those found in the environment. Thus, this paper will take an analytical approach that expands beyond the tendency to consider humanity in gender undifferentiated terms - which are, by default, implicitly masculine - to understanding the varying factors involved in the global distribution of food that ultimately and negatively impact the health of women. Further, when discussing "health," it will be alluded to in terms of the World Health Organization's definition of health, established in 1948, which states that " health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity"1 Therefore, the discussed health consequences of food distribution will include physiological manifestations of illness and injury, as well as mental anguish, hardship, and social instability; all of which have an effect on well-being.

Food Prices

There is no way to deny it, and it is hard to ignore or not notice the fact that the cost of food is rapidly and continuously increasing. $100 (USD) certainly does not get you much at the grocery market, particularly when compared to what one was able to purchase just 10 years ago. In March 2008, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), reported that the food price index for cereals, dairy products, meat, sugar, and oils increased by 57% from their March 2007 level.2 Even more dire of a statistic is the fact that the December 2007 increase represented the highest monthly increase in world food prices recorded in almost 20 years.2 This global hike in the cost of food, which correlates with the worldwide economic downturn, including the housing crash and bank failures in the United States, caused the World Bank to consider the allocation of an emergency sum of $1.2 billion to assist the worse hit countries.2 Of course, lending from the World Bank would have only exacerbated the economic situations for developing nations and their citizens who would be faced with mounting debt, including interest on re-payments to the World Bank, which would subsequently impact their ability to develop sustainable and domestic social programs and infrastructure that can help reduce the cost of food.

This global rise in food prices, particularly the increases occurring over the last several years, have been precipitated by a number of factors: natural disasters and droughts (which are ironically tied to or are the result of agricultural food production and industrial food processing which contribute to global warming), an increased demand in biofuel, the aforementioned economic downturn and the decline of the U.S. dollar, and an increase in middle income and high income countries, such as China, whose newly found insatiable demand for meat and dairy consequently increases demand for grain.3

Ultimately, the steep increase in global food prices - 83% over the past three years - has added nearly 100 million people to the numbers who are chronically hungry, and is steadily bringing the world total to nearly 1 billion people.4 Further, due to gender pay inequality and other socio-cultural norms, women (and children) represent the vast majority of those in poverty, and those who are classified as chronically hungry. This phenomenon is referred to as the "feminization of poverty" by sociologists, as two out of every three poor adults are women.5 Further, worldwide, women earn less than three-quarters of the wages of men doing similar jobs.6 The 2012 US Census Bureau report, Insecure and Unequal: Poverty and Income Among Women and Families, found that poverty rates among women, like poverty rates overall, stabilized last year after three years of significant increases, but remained at historically high levels and substantially above the poverty rates for men. 7

Also, when speaking about the Feminization of Poverty, it is important to point out that women of color are also subjected to intersectionality. In fact, a number of feminist and womanist critics, as well as public health specialists, have pointed out that the term "Women and Minorities" set forth by the National Institutes of Health through their Health Policy & Guidelines on the Inclusion of Women and Minorities as Subjects in Clinical Research 8 is quite problematic. Among the criticism of the statement is "the implied mutual exclusivity of these populations; and missing is the notion that these two categories intersect, as they do in the lives of racial/ethnic minority women."9

So, what are manifestations of this intersection in the face of the feminization of poverty? It means that minority women are more likely to be impoverished than their white counterparts, and thus have greater difficulty in purchasing food due to the global escalation of food prices. A 2011 annual report on Poverty Rate by Ethnicity, released by the Henry J. Kaiser Foundation, helps to exemplify economic disparities that racial minorities cope with. Although they represent a small (but in some areas growing) percentage of the U.S. population, African Americans have a 35% poverty rate, and Hispanics a 33% poverty rate, which are quite higher than their white counterparts at 13%.10 This pattern is echoed outside of the U.S. In the U.K., a 2013 report of the Institute of Race Relations reported that, throughout the UK, people from BME (Black and minority ethnic communities) groups are much more likely to be in poverty (with an income of less than 60 percent of the median household income) than white British people. 11

The 2013-2014 Food Price Outlook report, produced by the USDA's Economic Research Service, seems to offer a certain degree of hope, at first glance. The organization forecast predicts food price increases of 1.5% to 2.5%, and points out that prices are likely to increase less than they did in 2012.12 However, with talks of military action in Syria which may impact fuel prices, along with the risk of natural disasters, particularly those along the gulf coast as we enter Hurricane Season, can quickly lead to an increase in food prices. In essence, the predictions are not quite comforting when considering we live in a global society where economic uncertainty, wars, and strife, as well as the quest for increased profit margins by multinational corporations, can quickly impact food prices in the U.S.

The Myth of Food Insecurity

Discussions on food production, availability, distribution, and, of course, consumption often focus on the issue of food insecurity or security. However, it is quite valid to state that food insecurity is a myth, as it is a man-made phenomenon. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations currently states that food security "exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious foods which meet their dietary needs, and food preferences for an active and healthy lifestyle".13 The USDA shortens this description and states the following in their guidelines: "food security is access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life".13

Why consider food insecurity a myth? Well, the current production of food actually exceeds global population requirements.13 In fact, enough food is produced worldwide to feed all the people in the world.14

Yet, nearly 1 billion people worldwide suffer from chronic hunger today despite the shocking truth that enough food is being produced to feed the world's population. Further, there are a wide range of social, economic, and political factors that contribute to this problem, and food distribution (both political and logistical) is perhaps the most significant. Historical examples of political problems that impact food distribution, and create the condition of food insecurity, include the Irish Potato feminine, as well as a number of Indian famines in the late 19th century, which were caused by the lack of political will to distribute food to the starving masses, not the lack of food production; as these countries were exporting food to various English colonies during this time.15,16 Therefore, one can argue that food insecurity is a failure of entitlement and the result of concentrated power, greed, the pursuit of exponentially-growing profits, and the failure of governments.

Another major problem that needs to be addressed, when considering food security, is the extent of waste that occurs post-harvest and during transport of food. Of course much of this waste is also tied to economic and political factors, such as the low wages earned by women, which make it difficult for them to afford proper refrigeration systems, the lack of available and reliable infrastructure to quickly distribute food and other goods in developing nations, restrictions or unavailability of storage, cooling, packaging, and marketing systems, as well stringent health laws which make it more acceptable for grocers and restaurants to discard of food rather than donate it to soup kitchens and homeless shelters. In a sense, there is a complex and bureaucratic system of waste.

Still, for developing nations, post-harvest food loss is a serious problem; and it is often women who grow and process perishable crops.17 Most produce is very perishable, as it is susceptible to bacteria, fungus, and pests that rot the food or contaminate it with disease, which renders the food inedible. The UN Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that one-third of all food produced for human consumption, which translates to 1.3 billion tons a year, is lost or wasted.17 The greater problem, which leads to chronic hunger, malnutrition, and subsequent diseases and other health concerns, is that the large volume of wasted food results in food shortages and the man-made phenomenon of "food insecurity," which severely increases food prices for consumers. Overall, any discussions about food security must include discourse on poverty reduction and economic development.

Food Processing & Workers

Women, particularly immigrant women and women living in rural and urban areas, make up a large percentage of food workers who are involved in the direct processing and distribution of food. These workers include restaurant staff, as well as those working in processing factories and farms. These high impact jobs put women at an increased risk for sustaining injuries or being exposed to hazardous and infectious substances. Women who work in food manufacturing and processing industries show nearly a five-fold increase in the incidence of breast cancer,18 which can be attributed to exposure to carcinogenic and toxic substances.

The processing of seafood, a growing industry, has led to more frequent reports of occupational health problems, particularly asthma,19 and women are most affected, suffering incapacity and absenteeism, as a result of differences in physical exposures and psychosocial work environments. 20 Women may be more susceptible to toxicity due to their bodies having greater fat deposits than men. Toxic chemicals, particularly those that are fat soluble, can be stored in the body's adipose (fat) tissues. Seafood processors also suffer a great deal of skin ailments as a result of contact with harsh and toxic compounds, including those produced by the fish. These skin manifestations include urticaria and eczematous contact dermatitis of various types. Further, contact with the proteinaceous fish material causes a chronic recurrent dermatitis commonly known as protein contact dermatitis (PCD), and at least 75% of eczematous dermatitis cases are due to irritation caused by contact with water and products in fish juice.21,22

Overall, the health problems experienced by fish processing workers are attributed to those that are safety risks (mechanical and electrical accidents); excessive noise levels and low temperatures; bacterial and parasitic infections; bioaerosols containing seafood allergens, microorganisms, and toxins; and poor ergonomic practices and workplace organization.19

Another equally, or perhaps more, dangerous industry is that of meat processing, including slaughterhouses; and profitability is responsible for the majority of the injuries due to the focus on the speed of the production line. No matter what, the production line must keep moving, because if it stops, costs go up due to a loss of profit. Health and safety is certainly trampled in the quest for increased profits, and this is best exemplified by the fact that the typical line speed in an American slaughterhouse 25 years ago was about 175 cattle per hour, while some line speeds now approach 400 cattle per hour.23 Sure, technological advances are responsible for part of this increase; however, the powerlessness and desire to meet constantly increasing demands for improved productivity, which impacts American workers in just about every industry, explains the rest.

A host of traumatic injuries and fatalities often result from the need to keep the production line moving quickly; and even more frequent are cumulative trauma injuries. These injuries include carpal tunnel syndrome, which results from hours of repetitive motion and is quite painful and debilitating if left untreated. The rate of cumulative trauma injuries in meatpacking is the highest of any American industry, where it is about 33 times higher than the national average.23 Every year, nearly 1 out of 10 meatpacking workers, many of which are women filling low-paid positions, suffer a cumulative trauma injury.23

The situation for undocumented immigrant women working in the food processing industry is even more dire, as they are often exploited by employers. Undocumented workers often are willing to take the most physically demanding, and thus high risk jobs, and work in unsafe work environments. Clearly, employers who fill their processing plants with large numbers of undocumented workers do not care about federal regulations, whether they are those on immigration or occupational and environmental protections. Thus, undocumented workers are left in a position where they are exploited and have no legal means to report these violations.

A report by the 2010 Southern Poverty Law Center provided examples of how humiliation is a natural occurrence for undocumented workers, and this type of treatment not only creates physical problems, but also contributes to mental health concerns. The report found that undocumented workers were subjected to employers yelling at them, denying them bathroom breaks (and were actually told that those breaks would put their jobs at risk), sexually harassing and abusing them.24 Cumulative traumatic injuries are also a great concern, as the report shared the story of poultry processing workers who have to work quickly with scissors and who are forced to work to exhaustion with bleeding hands covered in bandages.24 Even more disheartening is that these undocumented workers do not receive employer-sponsored health insurance, and as low wage workers, they are without the financial means to pay for health services.

Next, the greatest humiliation often faced by undocumented women workers is that, if they are married, a number of the employers opt to pay them through their spouse's check.24This is certainly a far cry from gender pay equity, and represents the persistence of an archaic system of patriarchy where women are deemed the property of men, and thus their husbands are rightfully compensated for their labor outside of the home.

Food Distribution Impact on the Environment

Food distribution is directly linked to environmental health concerns, which result from transportation of food products as well as the waste and byproducts generated during the processing of food. Ecofeminists, often working in collaboration with grassroots environmental groups and women's health advocates, set out to bring awareness to the problem of environmental degradation and how it affects the health of women and families. The term "ecofeminism" itself was conceived by d'Eaubonne in 1974 as a connection of the ecology and women.25 The underlying premise is the understanding that interactions between humans, other organisms, and the abiotic environment have an impactful role on the lives of women. In fact, women are often credited for making up the majority of local activists in environmental justice organizations.26 Among these organizations are the following:

Association for Women's Rights in Development

Global Fund for Women

Women's Environmental Institute

Women's Voices for Earth

Women's involvement in environmental justice is mostly community-led grassroots organizing, and this form of advocacy has often led to the dominant and patriarchal institutes of power and influence to mock these efforts and refer to advocates as "hysterical housewives"26, as well as carry out other attacks on their credibility.

Wangari Maathai, also referred to as "The Tree Mother of Africa," became the first African woman to earn the Noble Peace Prize in 2004 due to her efforts in advocating for environmental protection, justice, and peace. Her belief was that a healthy environment helped improve lives by providing clean water and firewood for cooking, thereby decreasing conflict.27 From a public health perspective, Maathai's work helped to address the social determinants of health in order to create a more positive and healthy built environment, and showed that she understood how health can be achieved by focusing on and improving specific social factors.

Maathai, who passed away in 2011, was a university professor who worked as a grassroots activist, staging a number of women-led popular protests that bedeviled former Kenyan President, Daniel arap Moi. For the short-sighted, it would have appeared that Maathai was just planting trees; however, Geir Lundestad, Director of the Nobel Institute, wonderfully summarized, "Wangari Maathai combined the protection of the environment with the struggle for women's rights and fight for democracy".27 From a feminist perspective, the framework of intersectionality may be utilized to highlight the life's work of Wangari Maathai. Maathai's efforts helped to raise awareness and address a number of intersecting issues, including those of gender, class, and even race. For, the vast majority of environmental activists who are given credence on the world stage are often white males.28,29

When considering environmental health concerns, the problem is compounded for women, especially when considering matters of reproductive health. As discussed, human health is intimately tied to environmental conditions, and environmental toxicants have proven to pose substantial threats to reproductive health and fetal development.30 Hollander's 1997 report on the "Endocrine Disruption Hypothesis" presented the argument on how man-made and naturally occurring materials, which appear to directly interfere with hormone synthesis and/or action, are amongst those substances that have effects on reproductive health.31 Women come in contact with these substances in the workplace (food processors, handlers), as well as in the built environment (pollution, soil toxicity, water contamination, etc.). For example, women involved in processing seafood are at risk of exposure to mercury, which, in certain forms, may cause birth defects and neurological disorders.31

Other environmental concerns linked to food distribution and food processing include water pollution, along with higher rates of air pollution resulting from emissions from factories, as well as transportation of food products by large diesel trucks which also contribute toxic emissions. Women and children, particularly those of low income, are often in areas (poor, non-white) that are the most impacted by these environmental toxins; and thus suffer the most significant health consequences. These exposures to specific particulate ingredients are linked to asthma, cardiovascular problems, and cancer. 32


Global systems of food processing, packing, and distribution largely expose women and girls, those who make up the majority of foodworkers worldwide, to toxins and other harmful products that negatively impact their health. Efforts to address this issue should include collaborations between environmental justice organizations, public health specialists, particularly those focusing on occupational health, reproductive rights organizations, and ecofeminists; due to their overlapping interests and the linkages between food production and distribution, occupational safety, environmental conditions, reproductive health, and the well-being of women and families.


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