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, labour-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 labour force.

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 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,” said the study co-author Vidya Vemireddy. “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.”

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 ten additional minutes spent in agricultural work, cooking time is reduced by four minutes during the evening meal. The results of the study show that a Rs 100 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.

More hours of farm work in peak season eats into the time and energy women would spend on cooking, especially during the evening meal preparation. 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, this, in turn, can affect nutrients derived from these meals, said Vemireddy from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad.

Vemireddy and co-author, Prabhu Pingali, who is a director at the Tata-Cornell Institute for Agriculture and Nutrition, Cornell University, 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 standardised 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 the 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 characterised by poor nutritional status, particularly in rural areas.

“We show with evidence that women contribute a lot to agriculture as farm labourers, farm managers in various activities spread across seasons,” emphasised Tata-Cornell Institute for Agriculture and Nutrition alumna Vemireddy “We must recognise women’s participation in agriculture and recognise that it may have negative consequences if their burden increases any further.” This would mean the policy should be aligned to women’s needs in agriculture – be it technology, finance and extension.

Women-friendly 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.

Moreover, it is vital to introduce labour-saving strategies both in agriculture as well as in domestic work. For example, the integration of labour-saving technologies in the National Mission on Agricultural Extension and Technology.

R Rengalakshmi, who is a director of ecotechnology at the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation and was not associated with the study, echoes the observations that labour-saving technologies improve women’s nutritional deficiencies especially addressing undernutrition (weight loss and changes in the Body Mass Index during the peak agricultural season) by reducing the use of physical energy both for domestic and productive work.

“Labour-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.

Representational image. Photo credit: Sanjay Kanojia / AFP

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

According to India’s Economic Survey of 2017-2018, growing rural to urban migration by men is leading to the feminisation of agriculture, with more women stepping into roles of cultivators, entrepreneurs and labourers. “There is a demand for women-friendly farm mechanisation as agriculture is facing labour scarcity and there is a rising trend of feminisation of agricultural labour force and work,” pointed out Rengalakshmi.

For instance, under the 12th five-year plan, the Ministry of Agriculture launched a sub-mission on agricultural mechanisation, a subsidy-based policy to promote the adoption of machinery use among smallholders from socially marginalised sections with special attention to women farmers.

While several provisions were included in the policy to promote the access and use of technology on farms with a targeted approach to address social and gender equity, there is a need for research organisations 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,” Rengalakshmi added. “There is a division of labour 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.”

One major gender disparity lies in landownership: only a small proportion of women farmers, have the land they toil on, to their names. The Periodic Labour 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.

Findings from the Tata-Cornell Institute for Agriculture and Nutrition’s Maharashtra survey suggest that about 85% of women in the sample households work as agricultural labourers. 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 labourers in peak seasons, in addition to household work, facing worse nutritional deficits while women with large landholdings can choose to hire labour 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,” Vemireddy explained. “Secondly, the cotton-growing household has greater incomes in general so the time constraints do not bind them as much.”

Rengalakshmi observed that the Indian government and different state governments have taken some initiatives to recognise gender roles in agriculture especially in production and post-harvest processing sectors but there is still a long way to go.

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 moving towards nutrition-sensitive food systems from largely staple-centric production systems, making provisions of non-cereal foods through the public distribution system, conducting community awareness campaigns; enhancing market infrastructure and food availability across seasons is also essential.

Climate change

As evidence mounts on the effects of climate change on agricultural production and the livelihoods of farmers, there is increasing recognition of the differences in climate change impacts on men and women.

The gender-differentiated impacts of climate change are especially pronounced among rural women, as they rely more on biomass (eg agricultural crops, wastes and wood and other forest resources) than men for their energy needs and livelihoods. Rural women also depend more than rural men on ecosystem services for food security, as they are often heavily involved in agricultural production and the management of natural resources, as per the Climate Smart Agriculture Sourcebook.

India’s agriculture sector is heavily impacted by climate change. Environmental and climate uncertainties keep farmers on their toes. The country’s agriculture also drives its economy. India is also the world’s largest consumer of groundwater, which plays a major role in irrigated agriculture responsible for over 70% of India’s foodgrain production.

But declining monsoon rainfall – a lifeline for over half of India’s 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.

The use of groundwater for agriculture is not regulated in India so far. Photo credit: TeshTesh/Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 4.0]

In a 2021 paper, researchers warn that groundwater depletion may reduce cropping intensity by up to 20% across all of India and by up to 68% in the regions projected to have low future groundwater availability in 2025. These large projected losses are of concern given that India is one of the largest agricultural producers worldwide, and over 600 million farmers depend on Indian agriculture as a primary source of 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 organisations working for them note that for a country like India where more than 50% of the population is directly or indirectly involved in agriculture, a guarantee in the form of the minimum support price for their crops is crucial, especially considering the environmental and climate uncertainties.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.