Women's Role in World Ag Highlighted

World Food Prize Forum Stresses Importance of Women in Agriculture, Science

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Chelsea Clinton was the keynote speaker Wednesday afternoon at the World Food Prize Borlaug Dialogue in Des Moines. She talked about the importance of empowering girls and women to embrace farming and education in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. (DTN photo by Chris Clayton)

DES MOINES (DTN) -- Ambassador Kenneth Quinn, president of the World Food Prize Foundation, opened the Borlaug Dialogue on Wednesday by pointing out the forum this year was oriented around the roles of women in agriculture, food and nutrition.

With that in mind, the keynote speaker was a woman, though not one directly involved in getting her hands in the soil. Chelsea Clinton, who serves as vice chair of the Clinton Foundation and also plays a role in the Clinton Global Initiative, talked to the 1,400 or so people at the opening forum about the efforts of foundations and the need to encourage women around the world to embrace science education.

Quinn pointed out that the World Food Prize and global food security have always been a bipartisan issue. Not addressed at Wednesday's forum was the fact Chelsea Clinton's mother is running for president and Iowa is the first state in the nation to choose presidential contenders early next year. Chelsea Clinton did not speak about presidential politics, nor did she talk to reporters at Wednesday's event.

Clinton also touched on the importance of African farmers committing to using "climate-smart agriculture" techniques and stressed the need for the world to continue addressing the demand for higher food production in areas with high population growth such as sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.

"Certainly we are not on track at the moment to feed the population we expect to have around the world in 2050," Clinton said.

Clinton noted roughly 80% of smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa are women. She added that it is especially important for those women farmers to have the same access to land, capital and interest rates as male farmers.

Domestically, Clinton said the U.S. needs to have some of its own "humility" when it comes to food security. She cited that 14% of the total U.S. population is considered food insecure. The rate of food insecurity jumps up to 20% for children and 33% for African-American children.

"We produce more than enough food to feed ourselves," Clinton said. She added, "We can't solve childhood obesity without dealing with the child-nutrition problems in the country."

The Clinton Global Initiative has started working with several leading food companies and social groups to use data collection as a way to fight hunger. The groups kicked off the "Food Security Genome Project" to examine the costs and impacts of hunger and food insecurity.

Following her speech, Clinton joined a panel of company executives from Google, Monsanto and Starbucks, as well as Iowa's lieutenant governor, to talk about the need to encourage more girls and young women to pursue education and careers in STEM fields -- science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Clinton noted that if Africa and Asia are dominated by women farmers, then more efforts should be placed on developing extension services oriented around women and employing women advisers. Clinton also highlighted that while the field of computer science has exploded in recent decades, at the same time, the percentage of women going into those fields has declined.

"Even though there are more computer science degrees, we have fewer and fewer percentages of women going into the field," she said.

Rob Fraley, chief technology officer at Monsanto, said the company's own assessment is that it will be a struggle filling needed science positions in the coming years without an influx of new people coming into related science fields.

"Better curriculum and starting that experience at an early age are important," Fraley said. "We tend to discourage women from participating in a STEM program, and we tend to send that signal at a very early age."

Putting in a plug for biotechnology, Fraley also stressed that agricultural technology has the potential to empower women through higher production. He cited that a farmer in Iowa might spend as little as 15 minutes applying a herbicide to a crop while a smallholder farmer will spend months during the growing season simply battling weeds. Fraley also said increasing data tools "are going to be truly transformational for smallholders."

Fraley added, "Agriculture is the heart and soul of food security and the chances we can make to agriculture in the future are the key to enhancing sustainability."

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

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Chris Clayton