Female farmer in Rwanda.

(WOMENSENEWS)–The rising global demand for biofuel–one culprit in the global food crisis–would seem at first glance to be a boon to the developing world’s female farmers.

After all, women represent between 40 percent and 80 percent of farmers in the developing world, where a rush is on to supply industrialized countries with an alternative to oil, which has spiked to $117 a barrel, up from $100 at the start of the year and under $10 a decade ago.

But a bundle of factors–from restrictive inheritance customs to the intense land pressures exerted by biofuel production–mean female farmers are likely to miss the biofuel bandwagon, according to a study released this week by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, based in Rome.

“Women might be limited in their ability to engage in and benefit from biofuel production due to their lack of access to land, capital and technology,” says Andrea Rossi, co-author of the report.

In fact, female farmers may be hurt by biofuel trends. That’s because governments often divert resources away from food production to expand bio-energy production and target marginal lands, which women more often than men depend on for food, fuel and livestock feed.

As oil prices have skyrocketed, developing countries have tripped over each other to emerge as credible suppliers of alternative energy sources, distilling ethanol for energy from corn, sugar cane and other crops.

At the forefront of this effort is Brazil, which is expecting more than $8 billion in foreign and domestic investment in the country’s biofuel over the next four years.

Cassava Leaves, Coconut Oil

Other countries, including Thailand, China and Nigeria, have explored small-scale biofuel production using cassava leaves, a root cultivated in sub-tropical regions and a major source of carbohydrates in the world’s food supply.

Mali–where firewood and charcoal represent 80 percent of the country’s national energy consumption–is pioneering energy from jahtrophta, a poisonous plant that grows successfully in barren soils, prevents erosion and steers animals away from food crops. Its biofuel potential has also captured investments from energy giant British Petroleum.

The Philippines and Fiji are examining the potential of coconut oil to produce petrol, according to Energia, the International Network on Gender and Sustainable Energy in Leusden, Netherlands. In February 2008, Virgin Atlantic became the first commercial airliner to fly with a partial load of coconut-oil biofuel.

Female farmers are also limited in their ability to produce liquid biofuel because the intensive resource requirements are beyond the reach of farmers who work on less than 10 acres of land, according to the April 21 Food and Agriculture Organization report.

Chief among the resources that women lack is land.

Male Inheritance Bias

In Brazil just 11 percent of land is owned by women.

A woman peels roots in Laos.

Women make up 80 percent of rural labor in sub-Saharan Africa, but land is traditionally inherited through the male line. In Cameroon women undertake more than 75 percent of agricultural work but own less than 10 percent of the land. In Burkina Faso women cannot own property without the support of a husband or male relative.

In Middle Eastern and North African countries that follow Sharia law, women inherit half of what is allocated to men. South America and Caribbean countries, where the rural labor force is becoming increasingly feminized by up to 40 percent, also have a cultural history of favoring male inheritance.

Without land as collateral, women often face higher interest rates on their loans than men.

Female farmers face these types of restraints amid an intense need for their crops.

Thirty-seven countries–21 in Africa–require external assistance to cover their food shortages, the Food and Agriculture Organization found.

“People in Haiti are eating mud,” says Yassine Fall, senior economic advisor for the U.N. Development Fund for Women. “More and more people are eating rocks in West Africa. People are so poor now that they are obliged to buy bones and boil them. Women in Mauritania are on the sides of the roads collecting the grains that fall from the back of trucks. People are rioting on the streets. It needs an urgent solution.”

Cost Pressures Increasing

The rising cost of food is also hurting low-income people in the industrialized world.

In the United States, 1 in 10 households experienced hunger or were at risk of hunger last year, according to the Bread for the World Institute in Washington, D.C.

Up to 28 million Americans could need food stamps this year, the highest level since the program was introduced in the 1960s, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Of the 11 million food stamp households in the United States, over 30 percent were headed by single women with children, the Washington-based Food Research and Action Center reported in 2006.

Emergency food aid–typically targeted at women for distribution–can buffer the crisis of rising food prices which is often compounded by natural disasters in low-income countries. But the World Food Program, which helped 16.4 million people and delivered 4.6 million metric tons of food in 2006, is also struggling to make ends meet.

The U.N. agency is spending 55 percent more since last June and says it needs more than $750 million to offset the costs without cutting back food rations or the number of people it feeds. Last year, the agency made an urgent appeal for $500 billion to big donor countries to make up for the rise in food and fuel prices.

Without new funds to support emergency measures, 100 million people could be plunged into hunger, according to the World Food Program’s executive director, Josette Sheeran.

“We have switched items in the food basket,” says Bettina Luescher, senior public affairs officer for the World Food Program’s New York office. “From yellow to white maize, from wheat to rice in some cases, in order to save money. In Cambodia, rice prices have gone up so much that we might have to shut down its school-feeding program.”

The main pressures on food prices won’t abate soon, according to the World Bank. The global development agency expects crop prices to remain high through 2009 as markets adjust to the volatility introduced by higher energy prices, growing demand for alternative energy sources, rising incomes in developing countries and crop vulnerability to rapid climate change.

To stave off the worst effects of the global food crisis, Rossi, the co-author of the Food and Agriculture Organization report, says it’s important for all women–not just female farmers–to get better access to land, capital and technology.

That’s because an increasing number of households in developing countries are headed by women due to male emigration and HIV-AIDS.

Dominique Soguel is Women’s eNews Arabic editor.

Women’s eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at [email protected].

For more information:

FAO report, “Gender and Equity Issues in Liquid Biofuels Production”

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