Ms. magazine  -- more than a magazine a movement


FEATURES | summer 2004

Food, Farming ... Feminism?
Why Going Organic Makes Good Sense

“What’s for dinner?” is just too simple a question for anyone to ask these days.

How about, “What’s for dinner, where did it come from, who grew it, and did they use toxic and persistent pesticides or genetic modification?”

No matter how we rebalance gender roles, women’s lives and health — and those of their families — are intricately connected to how food is produced. But putting food and feminism in the same sentence can make one wary. Wasn’t that part of the whole liberation plan — to make women less responsible for food? And what’s gender got to do with food choices and food production methods?

In answer to the first question, women worldwide are still primarily responsible for feeding families. They need to be aware of what they’re serving and what they are eating.

To the second question, I’d say, “Plenty.” Every feminist, woman or man, who embraces equality and diversity and opposes violence and domination, should recognize that the foods we eat, and how they’re grown, matter to our environment and to our lives.

What Does Organic Mean, Anyway?

It’s an old cliché by now that organic just means expensive, less-than-perfect-looking fruits and vegetables that haven’t been sprayed with pesticides. But there’s much more to organic foods today.

Organic standards don’t just prohibit the use of toxic and persistent chemicals; they also forbid irradiation, genetic modification — the insertion of a foreign gene into the molecular structure of an organism — and the use of sewage sludge as fertilizer, a common practice in conventional agriculture. The organic label covers virtually all agricultural products, not just produce: There are organic dairy products, cereals, soy products, wine, chocolate, oil and vinegar, meat and poultry, baby foods, frozen foods, pasta and canned foods.

Organic standards for meat and poultry prohibit growth hormones and antibiotics; instead, sick animals are removed from the herd and treated. Additionally, organic animal husbandry requires humane treatment of animals and their access to the outdoors. The supply of certified organic meat is limited, but increasing with demand and awareness; more widely available “natural” meats vary in production practices, often eschewing antibiotics and hormones but not using organically grown feed.

Understanding what organic does not mean is also important The certified organic label won’t tell us if a product comes from a small family farm or a larger company that might be a subsidiary of a huge conglomerate. And these days, organic foods have gone big-time. Their success in the North American marketplace, where sales are projected to reach $18 billion or more by 2007, has resulted in consolidation and mainstreaming, with many once-small brands now owned by food giants such as General Mills and Kraft. This trend has sparked a new consciousness among some consumers, who now seek out local foods with regional characteristics as well as organic foods.

How do you know if you’re getting the real organic deal? The U.S. Department of Agriculture implemented national standards for the organic food label in 2002, and organic producers must employ a farm plan and audit trail to ensure compliance. In addition, a USDA-accredited, independent third-party agent must certify all foods bearing the organic label (except for those by very small producers) and all organic processing facilities.

Darina Allen on her organic farm / photo by Bill Lambrecht

Ireland’s Darina Allen Keeps It Real

Darina Allen could easily have rested on her laurels as Ireland’s most famous cook — and stayed noncontroversial — but she couldn’t stay quiet about genetically modified foods. Beginning in 1998, she has used her renown as a TV star chef and founder of the Ballymaloe Cookery School in County Cork to speak out against “fiddling around with genes” in crops — a technology that claims it will reduce plant diseases and increase crop sizes but carries still-unknown consequences.

What first drew Allen’s attention was the Monsanto corporation’s Irish experiment with genetically engineered sugar beets, especially when Monsanto picked a plot for its field tests in close proximity to her school and organic farm. She pointed out that, among other concerns, genetic modification can lessen plant diversity in a country that all-too well knows how a single crop die-off can disrupt an entire economy.

“At our peril, we’ve narrowed the number of crops and varieties we’re growing,” Allen says. “The Irish potato famine [of the 1840s] is the simplest illustration of what can happen.”

Allen’s message resounded in Ireland and the United Kingdom, but in the United States one-third of corn and almost all soy crops have already been genetically modified with little notice. Allen fears that even European consumer opposition may not prevent introduction of GM crops on her continent.

“Once the genie gets out of the bottle, there’s no getting back, no product recall if something goes wrong,” she says. “There are risks of cross-contamination, instances already of cross-pollination. The reality is there is absolutely no way we can know the long-term effects [of genetically modified foods] on plant or animal.”

Fears about GM provide yet another compelling argument for going organic, as federal standards for certified organic foods prohibit genetic modification. That’s one of the reasons Allen supports organic crops, along with local and regional foods. “The more you know about how food is produced,” she says, “the more you realize that organic is not a luxury, it’s a necessity.”
— Michele Kort

Toxic Trespass

Although organic foods still carry a New Age connotation, the reasons women should consider eating organics aren’t touchy-feely at all. Instead, they have everything to do with our health and that of our children.

To start with, women take the brunt of the many toxic chemicals used in conventional agriculture. We have greater fat stores than men, and that’s where fat-soluble chemicals finally reside after they move up the food chain. While proponents of pesticides say that their use is safe and government-approved, “safe” is a relative term meaning that the government has determined that the risk is “acceptable.” In fact, scientists don’t know much about the long-term effects of many chemicals, so what has been deemed acceptable risk is often based on limited studies.

Furthermore, chemicals used on crops don’t just stay on the lettuce or tomatoes — they can reach everything and everyone in the environment. In farm states, for example, tap water has been shown to contain unsafe seasonal levels of the weed killer atrazine. The insecticide DDT remains in soil and water — and thus plants and fish — 30 years after it was banned for use in this country. Other practices of intensive agribusiness have an impact too: The overuse of antibiotics in livestock has caused antibiotic-resistant bacteria problems for humans, for example.

The epidemic spread of these chemicals has led to the notion of “toxic trespass,” says ecologist Sandra Steingraber, author of Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment (Perseus, 1997) and Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood (Perseus, 2001). “The idea of toxic chemicals as a human-rights violation is growing,” she says. “Pesticides will drift, being carried by air, fog, rain, quite apart from the food that we buy. [In one study], women within a mile of agricultural farms were at greater risk for birth defects. We are being asked to assume health risks for these exposures without having agreed to that.”

One of the most troubling aspects of chemicals in the environment is that women pass fat-soluble chemicals to their infants through breast-feeding. The notion of breast-milk contamination is a highly charged issue, Steingraber says, because discussing it could discourage women from breast-feeding. There are many compelling reasons to breast-feed — and to simultaneously insist on better environmental practices. Whether they are breastfed or not, in fact, children continue to be at risk from pesticide residues in foods: Studies of residue data have shown that young children may ingest unsafe levels of pesticide residues even when those residues are within legal limits. In the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996, the Environmental Protection Agency was mandated to revise pesticide limits by taking into account children’s exposure, but that process is not yet complete or satisfactory to many environmental advocates.

Studies also confirm that eating organic foods does help children ingest fewer pesticides, since those foods have significantly fewer pesticide residues than nonorganics. (Background contamination makes “pesticide-free” an almost impossible claim to make.)

Where the Money Is

When it comes to supporting organic foods, women have already made their voices heard in the marketplace. While studies show that interest in organic foods cuts across many demographic categories, it’s still predominantly women who buy organic foods, says Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association.

Women gravitated to organics as a direct outgrowth of other social-change movements of the 1960s and 1970s. “The food co-op movement was all women around the table, looking for ways to find out more about the food they were purchasing and how they could have more control over the amount of money they were spending on their food and influencing the types of products they were able to purchase in bulk,” says DiMatteo. As food co-ops expanded or became private stores and other natural foods stores came into being, the women who had been sitting around the co-op table responded.

“The concept of voting with your dollars was very easy for women to understand,” DiMatteo says. Today, polls consistently show that more women than men say they have concerns about food-related issues such as genetic modification.

For highly conscious food consumers, even eating organic isn’t good enough. As many organic foods companies have become subsidiaries of large corporations, these consumers have looked to reclaim the small-is-beautiful connection they once felt with gutsy little organic entrepreneurs. They’re now finding that healthy intimacy in what’s been called the “beyond organic” movement.

The next best thing to growing organic food in your own backyard garden, the trend
supports local farmers, regional production and seasonal crops. That means buying fresh foods directly from a farmer, at a farmer’s market or through a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm. CSA farms allow consumers to buy a pre-season “share” in the farm, which entitles them to share in the risks and rewards of farming as well as receive a box of freshly harvested fruits, vegetables, and perhaps flowers and herbs at regular intervals through the growing seasons.

Enthusiasm for local and seasonal food is as much about philosophy and community as it is about flavor and freshness. The philosophy is further supported by Slow Food, an international organization with more than 60,000 members working to preserve regional tastes, flavors and biodiversity. Founded in Italy in 1986, Slow Food publishes its own gorgeous periodical Slow, which honors tastes and cultures from around the world.

Chefs are often the best proponents of local foods, working creatively with farms or farmer’s markets to find the freshest ingredients for seasonal dishes. Ann Cooper, executive chef at the Ross School in East Hampton, N.Y., and author of Bitter Harvest: A Chef’s Perspective on the Hidden Dangers in the Foods We Eat and What You Can Do About It and “A Woman’s Place Is in the Kitchen”: The Evolution of Women Chefs, believes women both motivate and benefit from the interest in local and seasonal foods. “I think the localization of food and the value we’re starting to place on artisan and local products will open up [business] doors for women that are very positive,” she says.

For Cooper, local and seasonal eating also adds a critical element to the notion of organic foods. “The national organic standards say nothing about community,” she says. “I think there’s a heart and soul that the national program
doesn’t address.”
— E.L.

For more on the Slow Food movement, visit Slow You can also find a CSA farm in your area, as well as the nearest farmer’s market.

But there’s a long way to go: Even as the organic movement has grown, organic foods remain a small percentage of the enormous food industry and organic agriculture a small percentage of farm acreage in this country. Women could dramatically change this ratio, however, since they’re responsible for an estimated 80 percent of their families’ food-purchasing decisions and meal-preparation duties. That may not read as progress in terms of tasksharing, but it gives women power in the marketplace.

Middle-aged women, in particular, are a significant economic force, says Martha Barletta, president of the Illinois-based TrendSight Group and author of Marketing to Women: How to Understand, Reach and Increase Your Share of the World’s Largest Market Segment (Dearborn, 2002).

“Boomer women are where the money is,” Barletta says. “It’s the most ridiculously overlooked segment in the world.”

That's Mr. Farmer to You

So women have a good reason to eat organic and the buying power to make organic food a family staple. Now, more and more, they’re the ones actually growing organic food as well.

Take Vanessa Bogenholm. As an agricultural biology student in the late 1980s at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona, Bogenholm was one of only three women in a class of 37 students. Trained as a conventional farmer to use chemical fertilizers and pesticides, she ended up converting her 50-acre farm to organic methods when she realized she wouldn’t let her dog out of the truck when pesticides were being sprayed.

Today Bogenholm owns and operates VB Farms in California’s Central Coast region, selling her naturally sweet strawberries in 19 farmer’s markets. She also chairs the board of directors for California Certified Organic Farmers and is an inspector and consultant for other organic farmers.

She’s certainly not alone as a female farming entrepreneur. In preliminary results from the 2002 Census of Agriculture, the number of women who were principal operators on farms increased to 236,269, up 12.62 percent from 1997 figures. For the first time, the Census also identified women who were second and third operators on farms: They were 62.7 percent of the total in that category. In all, about 11 percent of principal operators and 27 percent of farm operators are female.

Not surprisingly, the number of female farmers receiving higher education has also grown. In the 1970-71 school year, women were awarded a meager 4.2 percent of undergraduate degrees in agriculture and natural resources, 5.9 percent of master’s degrees and 2.9 percent of doctoral degrees, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. But in 2000-01, women earned, respectively, 45.1, 47.3nd 34.2 percent of those same degrees.

Nonetheless, it’s still a fairly common complaint among women in agriculture — even those working in alternative systems — that they still aren’t seen as The Farmer. Bogenholm, for example, points out that when male fertilizer salesmen come to the farm, they invariably ask, “Where’s your dad?” And in January, hundreds of women farmers filed a motion to bring a class action suit against the USDA — similar to what African American farmers before them have done — saying they were denied farm loans, or even the opportunity to apply for farm loans, based on gender.

“Women have always been part of the family farm, critical pieces of the managing partnership,” says Mary Peabody, director of the Women’s Agricultural Network in Berlin, Vt. “Until fairly recently they were okay with being the silent partner. Now, within the family dynamic, women want to be acknowledged as decision makers.”

The Organic Opportunity

In organic farming, they may be more likely to get that acknowledgement — and have more of a chance to start their own farms.

Although research on women on organic farms is limited, some data indicates that there’s a greater percentage of women among organic farmers than among farmers as a whole. The biannual survey of organic farmers by the Organic Farming Research Foundation in Santa Cruz, Calif., for one, has shown for the past decade that about 22 percent of its respondents are women. And a 2001 study by the Women on U.S. Farms Research Initiative at Pennsylvania State University concluded that when women are the main farmers, they’re far more likely than men to eschew chemical-intensive production and use “sustainable” agriculture practices — those that are ecologically and socially responsible as well as profitable. Those include, but not exclusively, certified organic methods.

Yet organic advocates are cautious about saying that women have an essential instinct for, or a natural gravitation to, organic farming over conventional production.

“Clearly there’s something that differentiates conventional and organic and sustainable agriculture in terms of women in leadership roles that’s worth thinking about,” says Kathleen Merrigan, director of the Agriculture, Food and Environment Program at Tufts University in Boston, who helped shape the legislation that led to the USDA National Organic Program. “If you’re interested in agriculture and working on the land, traditional doors are kind of closed to you. The alternative was organic. [The presence of more women] may not all be from some deepseated views on ecology and nutrition, but from ‘I wanted to get into this field and this was open to me.’”

True to Its Roots

The food supply link from farm to table has traditionally been a man’s world, but don’t tell that to the women at Veritable Vegetable. The nation’s oldest distributor of certified organic produce is women-owned and -managed, and as committed to a progressive workplace as it is to supporting organic food and farmers.

Founded in 1974 as a worker collective, VV (as it’s known) now rings up $22 million in annual sales. When it began, though, it supplied organic food within a small closed system of neighborhood co-ops and food clubs. Over time, as organic food moved out of an activist community and into mainstream society, the company decided to distribute to for-profit retail outlets as well.

VV also opened its staff to men as well as women. “The people we want to do business with are those who embrace the feminine part of themselves, for want of a better word,” says purchasing manager Bu Nygrens, who has been with the company more than two decades. “Those people are cooperative, creative, nurturing and not dominating. If a man comes to work here, he has to either want that kind of environment or give it a try, and we’ve been blessed with incredible men in our lives, on our staffs, and as farmers.”

Nygrens sees a parallel between VV’s cooperative business model and the principles of organic agriculture itself. “It’s an acceptance of the wildness and the mystery of life,” she says. “Women have had projected on them that they’re wild, uncontrollable, and therefore to be feared. In organic farming, nature can’t really be controlled, so you work with it instead of dominating it.”
— E.L.

“It’s fairly hard for women as farm operators to get involved in conventional farming,” says Carolyn Sachs, director of the women’s studies program and a professor of rural sociology at Penn State. “Conventional farming is so capital-intensive and women [are less likely to] own land, so it’s harder for them to get credit, machinery. But they can enter [organic] farming on a smaller scale, and it doesn’t require that they use chemicals, herbicides or other production practices that are more environmentally damaging.”

Women are also more likely to engage in marketing strategies that build relationships with consumers, such as community-supported agriculture and farmer’s markets. “Women are buying smaller farms closer to urban areas so they can market their produce to an urban environment,” says Amy Trauger, a doctoral student at Penn State and part of the Women on U.S. Farms Research Initiative. “So they’re adapting in clever ways to their own marginalization from mainstream economics.” Trauger further suggests that sustainable agriculture “offers a public space of recognition for women as farmers, not only through providing remuneration for their work, but also affirming and legitimating their identity as farmers.”

Feminists on the Farm

These researchers reject the notion that it is an essential tendency to nurture or harmonize with nature that makes women opt for organic or sustainable farming. Yet the drive toward community — women’s skill in building relationships and the idea that “women make the connections” between food, land, health and future generations — comes up frequently. At the Women, Food & Agriculture Network (WFAN), a nonprofit project of the Tides Center and Iowa State University Extension in Ames, Iowa, building an intergenerational network and a sense of community among rural women is paramount to the organization’s goals.

“In Iowa, we don’t have much diversity of color, but we do [have diversity] of age,” says director and co-founder Denise O’Brien. “It’s the passing of knowledge that women gain, the bonding that happens. What better thing than to pass on philosophy and knowledge and sharing, when you’re out in the garden weeding and you get to talk. Young women learn so much experientially. Our greatest success is mentoring younger women.”

O’Brien works with women coming to farming through environmental studies as well as with traditional farm families. A new graduate program in sustainable agriculture at Iowa State University, she says, has more women students than men. “So many of them aren’t coming out of a traditional rural culture. They’re bringing a feminist culture to food production.”

The average age of farmers in the United States is over 50 years old, and going up, so the interest of young farmers must be encouraged if healthy farms are of value to our communities. The next generation is likely to include many women whose inclinations and beliefs will alter the face of farming and food production. The data suggests that many of these women will opt for organic farming, working to decrease our dependence on environmental toxins and on a food system that dominates nature rather than working in tandem with it.

“It’s not just about the apple you eat,” Tufts University professor Merrigan says. “It’s about all the factors leading up to that moment.”

Elaine Lipson is the author of The Organic Foods Sourcebook (McGraw-Hill, 2001). Her articles have appeared in Yoga Journal, Delicious!, Natural Foods Merchandiser, Natural Grocery Buyer and more. She lives in Colorado.

More Organic Resources:

Women's Agricultural Network works to increase the number of women owning and operating profitable farms and ag-related businesses, as well as their profile in leadership positions throughout the agricultural sectors of business, government and community.

Women, Food & Agriculture Network amplifies women's voices on issues of food systems, sustainable communities and environmental integrity.

The Organic Trade Association encourages global sustainability through promoting and protecting the growth of diverse organic trade.

Organic Farming Research Foundation fosters the improvement and widespread adoption of organic farming practices.

Environmental Working Group conducts investigations that expose threats to our health and the environment.

USDA Women in Agriculture features documents from the Third International Conference on Women and Agriculture (2002).

The Women on U.S. Farms Research Initiative (Pennsylvania State University) showcases the work of researchers analyzing issues relevant to women in agriculture. Plenty of organization and information links are provided.

Check out The Organic Manifesto of a Biologist Mother by biologist Sandra Steingraber.

Finally, for addditional reading, see Our Children’s Toxic Legacy: How Science and Law Fail to Protect Us from Pesticides by John Wargo.