Greetings from the 66th Session of the UN General Assembly. Yesterday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke with distinguished leaders from the government, civil society and the private sector about "Women and Agriculture: A Conversation on Improving Global Food Security." In a discussion moderated by New York Times columnist Nick Kristof, she was joined by Jakaya Kikwete, President of Tanzania; Kathy Spahn, President and CEO of Helen Keller International; Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever; Reema Nanavaty, Director of Economic and Rural Development for the Self-Employed Women's Association of India (SEWA); Jose Graziano da Silva, Assistant Director-General of the FAO and former Brazilian Extraordinary Minister of Food Security and Fight Against Hunger; and Rajiv Shah, Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Secretary Clinton convened this panel to review the evidence for investing in women farmers, and targeted global leaders who are involved in agriculture (sourcing, training, farming) already, but who may not consider women as explicit targets of their investments. Women make up 43 percent of the global agricultural workforce, 50 percent in parts of Asia and Africa, and are the outright majority in over 30 countries around the world. However, there are well-documented gender disparities in access to credit, seeds, fertilizers, and other modern technologies. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that equalizing access to productive resources between female and male farmers could increase agricultural output in developing countries by as much as 2.5 to 4 percent, and although it doesn't sound like much, this could reduce the number of hungry people in the world by as many as 150 million. The more than 13.3 million people at risk of starvation due to drought and famine in the Horn of Africa -- primarily in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia -- are a painful reminder of the urgency of meeting the challenge.
Under the U.S. Feed the Future initiative, Secretary Clinton also announced a call for proposals under a $5 million USAID research program on women in agricultural development. USAID Administrator Shah emphasized that this is just one piece of our efforts to unleash the potential of women as agricultural producers and entrepreneurs -- but crucial for understanding what works.
The discussion served its purpose too. Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, discovered in the course of preparing for the panel that women are often his firm's most productive agricultural producers. However, after reviewing some preliminary evidence and listening to the discussion yesterday, he explained that "I was looking at the report we were writing […] the "Business 20" input into the G-20. And again, I'm ashamed to say we look at all the recommendations we make on increasing investments in agriculture, R&D, making it more sustainable, looking at nutrition as a driving factor, all the things that I'm sure you're all well familiar with. But again, we failed to look at it from the angle of women."
Polman continued, "So one of the commitments I made this morning to someone -- and I'll make it here publicly -- that I'll take this report back [… ] with these statistics that the Secretary shared with us -- if we could make that come alive, indeed it will go a long way to filling the gap of the 70 percent that we need in production to meet the world's projected food needs in 2050."
That's exactly the kind of outcome the Secretary and the Feed the Future team were hoping for.