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The Women Feeding Us: The effects of climate change on women in agriculture

Eliah Tumalan (etumalan@ucsc.edu) is a Business Management and Economics sophomore at UC Santa Cruz, and she wrote this article as part of a class project for "Communicating about Climate Change."






Photo Credit: Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, alianzanacionaldecampesinas.org


“Farmworkers' life expectancy is estimated to be only 49 years” -Xochitl Castañeda



Today more than ever before, the world is recognizing the importance of essential work. The looming effects of climate change make it critical we pay special attention to those, quite literally, feeding us: farmworkers. The women in the fields, put food on our tables while caring for their families, more often than not with little to no resources available to them. Until the agriculture industry recognizes the unique susceptibility of women farmworkers to climate-change related problems like extreme heat and insect borne disease while addressing the lack of support provided in field labor, the health and security of farm workers, particularly female farmworkers, will continue to decline. However, by spreading awareness about the dangers women and farm workers face while working in solidarity with them for greater legal protections and more sustainable climate action within agriculture, the essential work of women farmworkers could be healthy and secure, as well as crucial for all our lives.


The Susceptibility of Women's Health in Farm work

Farm work comes with many risks because of both its inherent conditions and employer negligence. Although California has some regulations requiring “portable water, toilets, shade and rest...heat related illnesses and deaths still occur” (Stoecklin-Marois et al. 47). Unfortunately, providing the bare minimum to farm workers is not all it takes to spare lives from risks like extreme temperatures, dehydration, and overexertion. The physical toll taken on workers in combination with lack of knowledge on how these risks can present symptomatically result in a recipe for disaster in a farm workers’ immediate and long term health.


”California accounts for 16% of U.S crop production, and over 450,000 people are employed in agriculture, with more than two-thirds being of Latino ethnicity” -(Stoecklin-Marois et al. 47).


In general, farmworkers have little access to resources which unfortunately comes at the expense of their health and security. Studies show that 70% of farmworkers lack health insurance. More times than not, farmwork does not provide any benefits to workers who cannot afford private healthcare and can face barriers when accessing services due to their immigration status. In other words, if a farmworker becomes ill or injured at work, they likely won’t have access to medical help and may resort to momentary remedies and returning to the fields unrecovered. Field workers are almost never offered paid time off and therefore cannot afford to take time off to prioritize their health. Despite the essential role of agriculture in the wellbeing of our population, farmworkers are paid very little and struggle to make ends meet due to the seasonal nature of farm work, and depending on their immigration status, farm work may be the only option available to many.


The health of farmworkers is already vulnerable to insecure conditions and circumstances, but the women in the field experience unique risks that men typically do not need to worry about. According to climate and gender writer Shouraseni Sen Roy, many countries do not provide women with “equal access to health care, education, political representation, and access to decision to making processes, and in some cases equal rights”(Roy 34). On top of that, many women actively experience difficulties advocating for their health and other needs due to language barriers. This means that many migrant farmworker women are likely to lack the resources and skills necessary to cope with a dangerous field of work like farming, especially being in a country and environment that is new to them.


In addition to the demographic circumstances that they face, another factor that hinders women in the fields is their reproductive health. Menstruation can provoke dehydration, and menstrual pain that can intensify in hot climates. Not to mention symptoms that affect pregnant women such as fatigue, nausea, increased urination and muscle aches cause even more strain. The short and few breaks that workers get can especially cause discomfort to women who only have access to porta-potties when maintaining femenine hygiene and who cannot afford to take pregnancy leaves from work.


Aside from other obstacles, one unfortunate social aspect of farmwork is women's lack of autonomy. Women often do not have the same social leverage that their male counterparts have and can be subject to sexual abuse in the fields. In many Latin-American countries, particularly Mexico, where many US farmworkers migrate from, men are accustomed to “highly gender-segregated work sites, the farms of California put women farmworkers in close proximity with men who have varied motivations for establishing intimate relationships. (Castañeda et al. 135) In other words, men who may have left their wives behind when immigrating or who may not be used to working in the same spaces as women can become inclined to invade women’s physical boundaries in the fields to satisfy sexual temptations. In some cases women can even become victims of sexual assault by farm owners who aim to assert power over the women or trade sex for work. Naturally, women will fear that speaking up could cost them their job or make them targets of further harassment and violence. Women who fear unsolicited advances make efforts to cover their bodies and avoid drawing attention to themselves which can contribute to overheating.

Furthermore, women in domestic heteronormal relationships often have fewer grounds for making decisions for themselves, their families, home and work life in a largely patriarchal society. These factors put women into a precarious position that challenges their ability to tend to both their physical and mental well-beings, especially when navigating a space where customs from their countries of origin are not recognized. Women deserve the support needed to combat these social barriers as well as protection from potential traumas and violence in the very fields that sustain us all.


Climate Change Will Further Agitate These Conditions

As carbon emissions and temperatures rise, the lives of female farm workers are particularly threatened. Studies suggest that climate change will continue to lengthen extreme heat episodes as well as make them more frequent. This will especially impact underpaid female agriculture workers who spend their days exposed to the elements as “poorer women who already have high levels of malnutrition will be easily susceptible to heat strokes and other heat related stresses.” (Roy 67.) In conjunction with the lack of healthcare and social limitations women face in the fields, it is clear that the dangers related to heat will only escalate.

In addition to the climatic stresses put onto farmworkers, climate change will also put economic pressure on them as our crops decline in productivity. There are projections that global warming will affect food production. Rising temperatures as well as fluctuating rain cycles “ will reduce productivity of crops…[outweighing] the benefits of increasing carbon dioxide”(USDA 1). Although vegetation can benefit from carbon dioxide, its excess can become too much for the environment to offset creating extreme effects on the Earth's climatic conditions, including the decline in crops. These are effects that our society is simply not prepared to overcome.


“The United Nations estimates a complete degradation [of soil] within 60 years -Emily Payne


On the other hand, the practices used by conventional farmers are adding to these risks. Practices used in the agriculture industry today are overly dependent on tilling and synthetic chemicals that are invasive to crops and reduce soil fertility. These practices are causing the mass desertification, or erosion, of our lands. Unlike healthy soil which can cool and sequester carbon from the air, desertified land heats local temperatures and emits carbon. It is safe to say we definitely do not need more of that. Scientists predict that if farmers fail to heal their fields through more regenerative operations, we will only have 60 harvests left of productive soil to grow the world's crops. Not only is climate change impairing agriculture, but self-destructive malpractice within conventional farming itself is also contributing to climate change. When farmers use destructive methods to harvest food, they endanger future crop growth and in turn the availability of work for farm workers especially women farmworkers who tend to work more intermittently than their male workers who are able to work more regularly. In addition, their mismanagement of soil is further heating fields making conditions that much more uncomfortable for female workers.


One of the more indirect discrepancies of global warming affecting women in agriculture is the increase of infectious diseases transmitted by pests like dengue malaria and Zika. It is important to note that this spread will not affect us all equally. Because of low wages, female farmworkers are unable to afford well insulated housing that is up to current standards of living and resort to seeking residing in unhygienic dwellings. Unfortunately, these types of conditions tend to attract pests that pose health risks for women and their families. It has been shown through data from various countries that “ the number of female fatalities from dengue was higher than male fatalities in all age groups”(Roy 64). It is likely this is because women tend to take on primary responsibility for household tasks such as chores which are in close proximity to water sources, common habitats for mosquitos. Another pest borne disease that puts pregnant women at risk is Zika which can create birth defects like microcephaly in the fetus. With rising temperatures and more frequent storms and heavy rains on the horizon, we can expect pests and insect borne diseases like these to thrive among farming communities, likely affecting women the worst.

Imagining a Better Agricultural Industry

Fixing the agriculture industry and reversing climate change may seem like an overwhelming task, but thankfully it is not impossible. Reimagining better agricultural structures is a great place to start for both the climate and those who may just be most affected the most, farmworkers.

  • Improving Farmworker rights and protections:

Improving the rights and protections for farmworkers is the first step to securing the lives and safety of farmworkers, particularly female workers. Some possible applications could be ensuring workers get substantial breaks that do not significantly compromise a workers income. Farm owners could also consider implementing thorough training on maintaining health in the field as well as having more surveillance of workers/wellness checks to ensure that workers, especially women are safe from heat exposure and harassment from other workers. Most importantly, farm workers should be able to report malpractice or abuse of workers to government authorities without fearing deportation or negligence.

  • Raising farm workers wages:

Most farmworkers are paid for the amount of crops they gather in a day's work. If rates are raised, workers will not feel as pressured to overwork themselves in fear of not making enough income. Although it doesn’t necessarily guarantee access to resources like healthcare, higher wages will help improve the quality of life for farm workers overall. A well paid worker is more likely to afford basic necessities more easily like nourishing foods and adequate housing which are things every human should have access to, no matter what field of work they are in. Not only will farm workers benefit from higher wages but it will also benefit farm owners as it will assist in fostering healthier, productive and more satisfied employees.

  • Using regenerative agriculture practices:

Renovating agricultural production practices will increase and stabilize crop yields while also protecting and improving the climatic environment in the fields for workers. Farmers all around the world are shifting towards regenerative agriculture, which is more natural and sustainable compared to conventional farming which strips plants and soil from nutrients contributing to desertification. Regenerative systems can be implemented in farms by choosing no-till cultivation, using organic compost, livestock grazing, and incorporating more biodiversity in the fields rather than homogeneous farming among other techniques. These applications will not only help crops to become more resilient to extreme weather conditions and increase crop productivity but will also increase plants' natural ability to cool local temperatures and draw down carbon from our atmosphere. This will help reduce carbon emissions and increase the profitability of food production in a market that is increasingly more demanding of eco-friendly products. Above all it will help create jobs and increase availability of work for farmers as well as cool their work environments.

A world without women in agriculture would be devastating to our communities and to stomachs around the globe. The effects of climate change will worsen the already dangerous conditions within farmwork. Farm owners should be highly encouraged to incorporate more ecological practices in their production as well as improve the work environment for their employees, especially female workers. Because of their lack of autonomy, resources, and unique responsibilities, female farm workers are among the most vulnerable to climate change. Nonetheless, these women are some of the most dedicated, diligent and essential individuals in our society. Although their resilience to the challenges in farm work is admirable, their job doesn’t have to be as treacherous as it is; In fact, it shouldn’t be. Publicizing the obstacles they face, and actively advocating for farmworker rights and protections, are among the ways the public can show solidarity with these women on whom so many depend. More than ever the world is relying on their agricultural knowledge and experience. Our crops, our climate, and the unsung female heroes in the field are depending on comprehensive action and support. Together, let's be the change.




Citations and further Reading:

Payne, Emily . “Regenerative Agriculture is Getting More Mainstream. But How Scalable Is It?” AgFunder News, May 2019.


Roy, Shouraseni Sen. “Linking Gender to Climate Change Impacts in the Global South.” Springer Nature, Springer, 2018, Coral Gables, FL, USA.

https://link-springer-com.oca.ucsc.edu/book/10.1007%2F978-3-319-75777-3


Stoecklin-Marois, et al. “Heat-related Illness Knowledge and Practices Among California Hired Farm Workers in the MICASA study.” Industrial Health 2013, Department of Public Health Sciences, Center for Health and the Environment, 2012, University of California Davis, USA.

https://www.jstage.jst.go.jp/article/indhealth/51/1/51_2012-0128/_pdf/-char/en


USA Today. “What You Need to Know about Zika and Pregnancy.” EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nfh&AN=J0E251734398716&site=ehost-live. Accessed 15 Dec. 2020.

https://search-ebscohost-com.oca.ucsc.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nfh&AN=J0E251734398716&site=ehost-live


Walthall, C.L et al. “Climate Change and Agriculture in the United States: Effects and Adaptation.” Technical Bulletin, USDA, UCAR, February 2013.

https://permanent.fdlp.gov/gpo46055/CC%20and%20Agriculture%20Report%20(02-04-2013)b.pdf


Xóchitl Castañeda et al. “Changing Constructions of Sexuality and Risk: Migrant Mexican Women Farmworkers in California.” The Journal of Latin American Anthropology, 2003.

https://anthrosource-onlinelibrary-wiley-com.oca.ucsc.edu/doi/pdfdirect/10.1525/jlca.2003.8.2.126


Image citations:

Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, alianzanacionaldecampesinas.org

https://www.alianzanacionaldecampesinas.org/read-me


Nixon, Andrew. KPBS, Capital Public radio, 2018.

https://www.kpbs.org/news/2018/mar/30/california-farm-workers-face-slow-climb-upward-mob/





Regeneración Publications:

“Heat Stress, Your Health, and the Earth”

https://dab6afc7-3915-4180-9b6b-948a98982f42.filesusr.com/ugd/fa0373_e35515a5c5e547a5a42c35c8bc7f8bce.pdf


“How a Changing Climate is Affecting Farmworkers in the Pájaro Valley with Policy Recommendations”

https://dab6afc7-3915-4180-9b6b-948a98982f42.filesusr.com/ugd/70a12d_e072658998714855bddf8113080a0e1d.pdf



Photo Credit: Andrew Nixon, KPBS, Capital Public radio, 2018.

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