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Q&A with Ann Vaughan, USAID Senior Advisor for Climate Change: Tackling Gender Inequality Lessens Hunger

While climate change affects everyone, its effects are not felt equally. Farmers worldwide face threats to their livelihoods from devastating seasonal changes and extreme weather. Women farmers in developing countries have different, and often more profound, vulnerabilities to climate change and face even greater challenges to adapt to the climate crisis.

We spoke with USAID Senior Advisor for Climate Change Ann Vaughan from the Agency’s Bureau for Resilience, Environment, and Food Security, about gender equity in agriculture and food security as related to climate change.

Photo Credit: Nevil Jackson, ACDI/VOCA

How does climate change affect food systems and agriculture?

The global food system contributes a third of all greenhouse gasses emitted. At the same time, farmers are losing crops to extreme weather events.

Through Feed the Future, we work in countries that contribute very little to the climate crisis but where smallholder farmers nonetheless face the horrific impacts of climate change — like extreme weather events that can leave fields underwater or pests that are moving into new geographies and devastate crops.

You only need to look at the Horn of Africa to see the scale of the impact on smallholder farmers and pastoralists. Six failed rainy seasons in the region  led  to the worst drought in 40 years  which has now been followed by devastating flooding. Communities across the Horn are struggling to survive in the face of years of “tough and tougher” conditions.

So we are seeing lost income, increased poverty and increased hunger.

Photo Credit: Meraz Rahman,Helen Keller International Bangladesh, BANI Project

How do we help these farmers adapt and thrive in the face of climate change?

Feed the Future’s strategy and programs recognize the impacts climate is already having on farmers, fishers and pastoralists and supports climate-smart agriculture, or CSA and other ways to make food systems more climate resilient. These include steps producers can take to increase their productivity and incomes, adapt and build resilience to climate change, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions over time. They’re using seeds that are more drought or heat tolerant, improving water and fertilizer use efficiency,  adopting better  irrigation practices, planting cover crops, reducing post harvest losses and connecting to markets and value addition opportunities.

We’re seeing the urgency to adapt food systems highlighted at the highest levels of climate policy and action. This is a particularly pivotal year for addressing climate challenges in our food systems. From November 30 to December 12, climate change and food systems will be a major focus at the United Nations’ annual climate meeting, or COP28, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The COP presidency, currently held by the UAE, has called for global action to address climate change and the food system, including through more CSA and funding for farmers to implement these practices. USAID, as part of the U.S. government delegation at COP28, will highlight our investments in climate smart practices, including through the Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate (AIM for Climate).

What does gender have to do with farming and food security?

In tackling climate change, the issues of agriculture, food security and gender equality are inextricably linked.

In the countries that have contributed the least to climate impacts, women smallholder farmers experience significantly more challenges than men farmers. Women make up over 40 percent of the world’s farmers, and many of them face discrimination that makes it difficult for them to obtain the vital tools they need – land tenure, access to finance and  new technologies and beyond – to be productive, and earn an income.

To compound the burden, women are typically responsible for food security in their households, including securing and preparing food. Food security means having nutritious food available, accessible and affordable at all times. It goes beyond what a person needs to simply exist – it means thriving.

For that reason, we’ve been encouraging greater investment in climate smart innovations that put women at the heart of climate and agricultural solutions. For example, Deputy Administrator Coleman issued a call to action at the AIM for Climate Summit in May to encourage greater private sector investments in gender “innovation sprints” under AIM for Climate.

Innovation sprints are new, self-financed investments from private sector and nongovernment partners that increase research and development and innovations for more climate-smart food systems.

Photo credit: Mauro Vombe

If you had to narrow it down, what’s the biggest issue for women farmers in these countries?

There are many challenges, but access to capital, land tenure and land plots that are productive are major hurdles. Land tenure rules define the ways in which property rights to land are allocated, transferred, used or managed in a society. These rules are often dictated by traditions and social norms that don’t allow women to have the same rights as men in using or owning land for farming. Without land titles or credit, it’s hard for women farmers to have the ability to make the investments they need for their land to be productive in a warming and more volatile climate.

Instead of women being an afterthought when it comes to agriculture, we want women in the boardrooms and in the labs, to be the innovators and the entrepreneurs, and a strong presence throughout value chains. Women need to be defining our specific objectives.

When women have the tools to succeed, they reinvest in their families and communities, creating a multiplier effect that promotes well-being, prosperity and stability.

So what’s next after COP 28?

COPs are important, but they’re just one moment in time. We have to follow up on the commitments we make at these conferences and continue to make sure we are intentionally bringing women to the table around decision making, be it at COP, in board rooms, and at the farm level. Removing obstacles for women farmers is critical to ending global hunger and we have to keep our focus there.

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