(WOMENSENEWS)–If female farmers had stronger legal rights and more business opportunities millions of people would be better fed, claims a U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization report released today.

In its annual report, "The State of Food and Agriculture," the U.N. agency finds that global harvests could rise by between 2.5 and 4 percent if women had stronger rights.

The organization estimates that 925 million people are currently undernourished. Closing a gender gap, which leaves female farmers’ yields 20 to 30 percent lower than their male counterparts, could reduce undernourishment numbers by between 100 million and 150 million people.

"If people increase agricultural production, there is more food around for people to eat," said Marcela Villarreal, director of the Food and Agriculture Organization’s Gender, Equity and Rural Employment Division, in an interview with Women’s eNews.

In addition to greater food production, Villarreal says increased yields by women would also generate more income, which could be used to buy food for a woman’s family.

Gap Linked to Weaker Access

The gender gap in agriculture is tied to women’s weaker access to land rights, financing, modern technologies and ownership of animals and equipment.

In many countries, women do not have the same legal rights to buy, sell or inherit land, borrow money or open bank accounts, sell their produce or sign a contract. When women do have similar rights, the law is not always upheld by government officials.

Villarreal said several countries, such as some in sub-Saharan Africa, have changed their laws to give women equal rights to owning and inheriting land. However, she adds, in the rural areas of these countries, where a woman’s status isn’t recognized, customary standards take precedent.

On top of barriers to owning land, women also face other issues such as those related to contract farming, where large-scale food-processing companies give farmers a commitment to buy a certain quantity of agriculture. The report’s authors found women are often excluded from contract farming because they lack the resources to guarantee delivery.

In Kenya, for example, women make up less than 10 percent of farmers in smallholder farming contracts.

However, on farms where men control the contracts, women still do much of the work as family laborers, as in China where women are not allowed to sign contracts.

Strengthening Women’s Rights

To improve overall agricultural efficiency, the authors recommend strengthening, enforcing and publicizing women’s rights to education, landholding and contract making.

In 2003, the African Union committed to pledging at least 10 percent of their budgets to increase their countries’ agricultural output. But a look at the progress in 2005 found that the average budget commitment was 6.6 percent, with only six of the 24 countries reaching the intended goal.

When agriculture investment is down, food production in turn drops. The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that additional investments of $83 billion annually will be needed in developing countries to meet food needs in 2050.

Villarreal said countries need to start changing laws, in addition to investing more time and money, to help close the gender gap and improve food productivity.

"It’s really important and I hope this report is going to help countries make those decisions," Villarreal said, "and realize they have lots to gain in agriculture investment and being gender sensitive."

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Katherine Rausch is an editorial intern at Women’s eNews and a freelance writer with a degree in journalism.

For more information:

Food and Agricultural Organization’s State of Food and Agriculture Page: