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Women Farmers’ Nutrition

Increased farm work adversely affects women’s nutrition

Spending more time for agricultural activities besides attending to household needs leave very little time for women to cook proper meals, impacting their nutrient intake

As women spend more time attending to agricultural work, they do not find time to cook, affecting their nutrient intake (Photo by Bernard Gagnon/Wikimedia Commons)

When women put in extra hours on farms in peak seasons of sowing, transplanting, and harvesting, it may impact their food preparation time and reduce nutrient intake, a study finds. The research draws attention to the consequences of increased time burdens on farms and the adverse effects on women’s nutrition.

Women-friendly, labor-saving devices on farms and at home can support the growing participation of women in agriculture, but a stronger policy response is needed in India where women constitute over a third of the farm labor force.

Farm work vs cooking time

Women in India spend about 32% of their time on agricultural activities such as transplanting, weeding, harvesting. Juggling multiple roles, they spend an average of 300 minutes per day in unpaid work at home in cooking, and other domestic activities including caring for children/family.

But when their work on farms is extended in peak seasons, they pitch in more time. On an average, a woman spends almost the same time as a man in agriculture, but men spend limited time in food preparation, domestic work, and care activities, notes the study.

“There is an opportunity cost involved for women in agriculture. If they lose out on time in agriculture then they will lose out on that wage; the wages foregone if they spend more time at home, is the opportunity cost. In peak seasons, wages increase, so time spent on farm increases and the opportunity cost also increases,” said the study’s co-author Vidya Vemireddy.

The rising opportunity cost of women’s time is associated with a dip in nutrient intake in terms of calories, proteins, fats, iron, and zinc. For every 10 additional minutes spent in agricultural work, time for cooking the evening meal is reduced by four minutes.

They may choose to reduce cooking time, make easy dishes that take up less time to cook and require less effort. As the diversity in diets falls, it can affect nutrients derived from these meals, says Vemireddy at the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad, India.

Impact on nutrient intake

The results of the study show that a 100-rupee increase in a woman’s agricultural wages (opportunity cost of time) per day is associated with a decline in her calories equal to 112.3 kcal, 0.7 mg iron, 0.4 mg zinc, and 1.5 g protein.

Vemireddy and co-author Prabhu Pingali, Director, Tata-Cornell Institute for Agriculture and Nutrition (TCI), Cornell University, United States surveyed 960 women from Maharashtra’s Chandrapur district about their time use and diets, across cropping patterns, seasons, and land ownership. They also created an index of standardized local recipes to measure nutrient intake and cooking time.

To the west of Chandrapur, cash crops such as cotton are cultivated and paddy in the east. According to 2011 Census of India, more than half of the population in Chandrapur is engaged in agriculture as a source of principal employment. This district is also characterized by poor nutritional status, particularly in rural areas.

“We must recognize women’s participation in agriculture and recognize that it may have negative consequences if their burden increases any further,” emphasized Vemireddy. This would mean the policy should be aligned to women’s needs in agriculture – be it technology, finance or extension.

Women-friendly agricultural interventions

Agricultural interventions and development programs should make sure that the benefits of participation in agriculture outweigh losses such as time for household activities and leisure, says the study.  It is vital to introduce labor-saving strategies in agriculture as well as in domestic work. For example, the integration of labor-saving technologies in the National Mission on Agricultural Extension and Technology.

R. Rengalakshmi, Director, Ecotechnology, M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, who was not associated with the study, echoes the observations that labor-saving technologies improve women’s nutritional deficiencies especially addressing undernutrition by reducing the use of physical energy both for domestic and productive work.

“Labor-saving technologies at home reduce the unpaid time burdens, health hazards and workload which support women to have more time for productive work or leisure which helps to improve their decision-making roles at the household level,” Rengalakshmi told Mongabay-India.

But a “mixed response” from the government on the inclusion of labor-saving devices for women in agriculture is not matching up to the trend of feminization of agriculture.

Farm mechanization

According to India’s Economic Survey of 2017-2018, growing rural to urban migration by men is leading to the feminization of agriculture, with more women stepping into roles of cultivators, entrepreneurs, and laborers. “There is a demand for women-friendly farm mechanization as agriculture is facing labor scarcity and there is a rising trend of feminization of agriculture,” said Rengalakshmi.

Under the XII five-year plan, the Ministry of Agriculture launched a Sub-Mission on Agricultural Mechanization, a subsidy-based policy to promote machinery use among smallholders from socially marginalized sections with special attention to women farmers.

While several provisions were included in the policy to promote technology and address social and gender equity, there is a need for research organizations to invest in technologies adapted to women’s requirements.

“There are cultural challenges as well as lack of gender sensitivity in development and innovation of technology. There is a division of labor between men and women who are culturally oriented to specific works, wage disparity, and prevailing gender discrimination where it is deemed improper for women to use heavy machines in fields,” Rengalakshmi adds.

Land ownership

One major gender disparity lies in land ownership: only a small proportion of women farmers, have the land they toil on, to their names. The Periodic Labor Force Survey 2017-18 in India states that in rural areas, about 55% of the male workers and 73.2% of the female workers are engaged in agriculture.

Yet only 12.8% of women own landholdings, highlights the Centre for Land Governance index. The rest operate in their family land which is largely in the name of male members, underscores Rengalakshmi.

Land ownership and the crops they grow also impacts the time that women spend in farm work (Photo by TeshTesh/Wikimedia Commons)

Findings from the TCI’s Maharashtra survey suggest that about 85% of women in the sample households work as agricultural laborers. About 31% of them are landless, while most of the sample households own below five acres of land.

Landless women have no choice but to work as agricultural laborers in peak seasons, in addition to household work, facing worse nutritional deficits while women with large landholdings can choose to hire labor and technology and reduce their time spent on the field and at home.

The findings also reveal that paddy-growing and mixed crop-growing households have pronounced negative impacts of rising time constraints on their nutrient intakes, while cotton-growing households do not have the same experience.

“The time constraints are different across different cropping systems since each crop involves different activities and therefore different time requirements on the field. Secondly, the cotton-growing household has greater incomes in general so the time constraints do not bind them as much,” Vemireddy explained.

Managing time burdens alone isn’t enough, add Vemireddy and Pingali. Ensuring the consumption of diverse diets throughout the year requires a reorientation of Indian public policy in several ways such as making provisions of non-cereal foods through the public distribution system.

Climate change impact

The gender-differentiated impacts of climate change are especially pronounced among rural women, as they rely more on biomass (example agricultural crops, wastes, and wood and other forest resources) than men for their energy needs and livelihoods.

India is the world’s largest consumer of groundwater, which plays a major role in irrigated agriculture responsible for over 70% of India’s food grain production. But declining monsoon rainfall–a lifeline for over half of its net cultivated area–has harmed the country’s groundwater storage, particularly in north India.

India’s marked gains in food production over the past 50 years is primarily linked to increased cropping intensity due to greater irrigation access, driven by the expansion of tube wells. But it has also triggered a looming water crisis as many parts of the country deal with severe groundwater crunch.

In a 2021 paper, researchers warn that groundwater depletion may reduce cropping intensity by up to 20% percent across India and by up to 68% in the regions projected to have low future groundwater availability in 2025. These projected losses are of concern since over 600 million farmers depend on agriculture for livelihood.

In September 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic, when the Government of India unveiled new farm laws, it triggered waves of protests among the farming community, prominently featuring women, who feel that the new laws do not promise a minimum support price for their crops – something the present laws were doing.

The farmers and organizations working for them note that for a country like India where more than 50% percent of the population is directly or indirectly involved in agriculture, a guarantee in the form of the minimum support price (MSP) for their crops is crucial, especially considering the environmental and climate uncertainties.

Sahana Ghosh is a journalist based at Kolkata. Views are personal.

This was first published in Mongabay India.

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