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
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
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
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,
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
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
Think Globally, Eat Locally (and Slo-o-o-w)
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
For more on the Slow Food movement, visit Slow Food.com. 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
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
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.”
“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
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.”