Women as Producers, Retailers, and Consumers in the Global Food Industry
During Thanksgiving, in my family, the women often gather together to work in the kitchen. As the men sit down in the den to watch TV, yelling profanities at the screen as their favorite football team misses the winning touchdown, the women chop, dice, stir, and glaze, preparing the abundance of dishes for the feast. As steam rises from the freshly baked pecan pies, the golden turkey, and the buttery mashed potatoes, my mother and aunts survey their work with a critical eye—not considering how far the pecans had traveled, what technologies the potatoes had interacted with, or what avenues of production the turkeys had passed through to arrive here. While this is a day of thanks, little thought or gratitude is given to the women involved in the ingredients’ picking, packing, and selling. The female-dominated Thanksgiving preparation only reflects one of the multiple levels of gendered power dynamics in the food industry.
Despite women’s presence on multiple levels of the global industrial food system—from production to selling to buying to preparation—they have little power or control. In the production and retail worlds in the Global North and South, women are often forced into low-level and low-paid positions as manual laborers with little access to markets. In the meantime, female consumers are unknowingly supporting the exploitation of women in the production side of the food industry. As consumers, they are forced to make some hard choices when buying food for their families, often sacrificing health and ethics in order to attain cheaper food.
Fragmentation and Fetishism: Women Divided
As globalized markets have shifted, many jobs have been relocated and centralized in the Global South, separating women living in the Global North from the production processes. This produces a vicious cycle of women in the North participating in the exploitation of women from the South, while in turn also being exploited by a society which relegates all women to have specific limited roles in the economy. As producers and consumers, women are in turn contributors to and victims of exploitation.
This cycle results from a deep separation between consumers and producers, what Marx calls commodity fetishism. Commodity fetishism is an element of capitalism that is described as “alienation between the worker and the production process, with the broader and deeper separation of us all, producers and consumers alike, from the social dynamics, context, and conditions that bring things into being” (Barndt, 2008). The women who are making the purchases are separated from the way that food items are produced and sold. Therefore, they make decisions based on price and health of the food, information that is readily available on most products, instead of taking into account responsibility to the people involved in the production process. On the other side, the women involved in the production process are also alienated from the women that are purchasing their goods.
Across class as well as national lines, women’s roles are fragmented in the food industry and isolated from each other, and each role allows the other’s oppression to exist. As Maria Mies describes in her 1986 work, “Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale,” “the enslavement and exploitation of one set of women is the foundation of a qualitatively different type of enslavement of another set of women. One is the condition as well as the consequence of the other.” Women are socialized to be the household purchasing power but to not worry too much about the affect of their purchases on the exploitation of other women. There is little hope to cross the commodity fetishism divide that separates nation from nation, Global North from Global South, product from people.
Women in Production
In Deborah Barndt’s 2008 book Tangled Routes, she describes such a divide across the national border between the United States and Mexico. Many of the tomatoes sold in the United States and Canada are grown in Mexico for economic reasons: despite long travel distances for the tomatoes, workers can be paid less and have fewer benefits. On the tomato production level, south of the border, women have very specific low-paid positions. Women in the Mexican tomato industry are the packers, but rarely the executives or forewomen who direct the work (Barndt, 2008). With these gendered positions, women have little opportunity to climb the executive ladder. This problem exists elsewhere in agricultural production in Latin America: in Colombia’s flower-cutting industry for example, between 60 and 80 percent of the unskilled workers are women, while the management jobs are male-dominated (Doss, 2011). Despite being relegated to these disadvantaged positions in an industry in which they have little power or control, women are still indispensable participants in agriculture across the globe.
In many developing countries, agriculture is low-income women’s main source of employment. In a report by the International Center for Research on Women, researchers Rekha Mehra and Mary Hill Rojas indicate that women are often left out of development projects despite the fact that “rural women produce half of the world’s food and, in developing countries, between 60 percent and 80 percent of food crops” (2008). Even though it is predominately women that work in agriculture, development projects are directed toward male farmers, giving men more power in the market economy. This becomes problematic when it becomes clear that the different genders have different priorities: according to a study from Kenya, “Taste was more important to women than higher yields because women grew maize for consumption whereas men grew it as a cash crop” (Mehra, 2008). Kenyan women are farming for personal consumption, not for selling in a broader market for profit. While development projects more often prioritize profit over quality of food, the involvement and consideration of women’s desires would challenge the conceptualization of development. In order to appeal to these Kenyan women’s preferences, women-centric development projects would have to prioritize the taste of food along with the other factors. This has yet to occur, as the priority continues to be on the male definition of economic success. Whether as managers of their independent family farms or as manual laborers on corporate industrial farms, women on the production side are constantly sidelined, with economic power and agency directed toward men in power.
Women in Retail
High-level positions are also the dominion of men in the retail sector of the market. One of the largest employers of women in the world, Wal-Mart, is not only the world’s largest retailer but also the world’s largest grocer (Mehra, 2008). While employing over 1.5 million women, the industry giant has had a history of lawsuits filed by unhappy female employees for “intentional sex discrimination” including “favoring pre-selected . . . men for promotions or favorable assignments, while discouraging women from seeking them” (HRW, 2007). In the retail world, women often remain entire lifetimes as cashiers, without ever getting a promotion to higher-paid work. Despite its nefarious business practices, Wal-Mart stays in business because of its cheap products. It participates in the grocery industry’s “race to the bottom” by attempting to provide lower prices than any of its competitors. Female consumers are therefore driven to purchase products at Wal-Mart because of these price incentives, and end up supporting a corporation that has a history of gender discrimination.
Gender discrimination is not reserved solely for Wal-Mart, but for other retail chains as well. In Barndt’s analysis of the Canadian supermarket Loblaws, she describes the glass ceiling that prevents female cashiers from achieving higher-level positions and the exploitation of the predominately female part-time low paid workers (Barndt, 2008). This established structure of the retail world enables the mistreatment of women and mothers, with little accountability for the company’s actions.
Women as Consumers
When making choices about the products they buy, female shoppers are already forced to make some difficult decisions: instead of choosing socially responsible items that benefit their own health as well as the environment’s and that of the people that produced them, women often have to purchase cheaper items that fit within the family budget. Cost often overrides other considerations. Why not buy milk at Wal-Mart at $1.69 instead of at a local independent brand for $5.00? Despite Wal-Mart’s history of gender discrimination, women have to weigh their priorities: who is more important—their families or women they have never met?
These priorities are further molded by the way in which the products are sold. Advertisements directed toward women often further distance the consumers from the production process. Instead of being subjected to images of the real working conditions or realities of women in the food production industry, female shoppers are often shown exotic images of life in third-world countries or caricatured symbols that represent the foreign culture. In what Barndt calls “image colonialism” consumers are subjected to images of an exotic country in which the women are closer to the earth, and become synonymous with nature and natural forces (Barndt, 2008). Instead of empathizing with women across the world, female shoppers are led to romanticize the countries from which they buy. These images further obscure the relationship between first-world women and third-world women. Instead of feeling a sense of community or sameness, women become distanced from women.
Even if the women shoppers were familiar with the working conditions of the women in the food production industry, this would only add to a number of values women have to weigh during a shopping trip. This is a heavy responsibility to bear. Women with lower income become the culprits: if they don’t spend money on healthier and more earth-friendly food then they are contributing to the costs of food: global warming, worker rights’ violations, and child obesity, among others. This creates a system in which the oppressed—the poor women who are fulfilling their gender roles as the food buyers and preparers for their families—are forced to oppress by making hard economic choices—buying products that only contribute further to worldwide inequalities and environmental destruction.
Women in Protest: “Compassionate Consumers”
Historically, there have been several instances when female consumers participated in protests against food injustice. In the early 1790s, predominately female consumers boycotted sugar for the use of slave labor in its production. Directed toward higher class ladies’ tea tables, the movement used appeals based on women’s “innate sense of compassion” (Holcomb, n.d.). Responsibility was put on the female consumers’ compassion to stop the horrors that they saw in the graphic portrayals of slave labor interspersed through the call-to-arms pamphlets distributed by the cause’s leaders (Holcomb, n.d.). While the cause was noble, and for higher-class women eliminating sugar from their tea was not such a sacrifice, the pressure was on the women. These women—already oppressed by patriarchal society—were expected to have the compassion necessary to make change. Was this protest an instance of women claiming power and pushing the industry to make changes, or was it yet again a moment in which women were made responsible for something they were ultimately not guilty of?
While consumer-directed boycotts are an important way to amplify women’s voices, the eighteenth century sugar boycott still eliminated lower class women from the process, and redirected responsibility from the corporations to the consumers, forcing the consumers—the women—to make sacrifices to achieve corporate change. The leaders of the movement appealed to their fellow female consumers for their emotional nature, while no such expectations existed for the male corporate executives. The executives later ended their involvement in slave labor, ten years after the boycott, presumably based off of economic necessity—not humanity or empathy (Holcomb, n.d.). There are few expectations for executives to have “feminine” qualities of human decency. This lack of emotional accountability for the executives and heightened emotional expectations for the female consumers still exists today and applies not only to consumers but to women who try to ascend to management positions.
One of the suggested solutions for gender inequality in the industry is to establish equitable forms of employment for women at all levels. By demanding higher paid and management-based positions, women could achieve more economic power. However, this is misdirecting a solution to the root problem. Corporate executives are expected to make decisions with a single aim: monetary gain, without consideration of human, environmental, or global costs. If more women were to fill management positions, they would be expected to fulfill the same lack of emotional integrity as their male counterparts. In The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture, one of the Wendell Berry’s critiques of the women’s movement is that it is “arguing the right of women to be exploiters—which men have no right to be” (Berry, 1977). According to Berry, to ask for more participation in the food industry as it stands is missing the point that the industry is inherently exploitative and fragmented. More participation by an elite group of women elevated to management positions in an exploitative system will not alleviate the consequences of the system for women across the socioeconomic strata and across the globe.
If the Kenyan female farmers’ value of taste is any indication, women’s priorities can be fundamentally different from men’s priorities. Dissenting voices in order to make heard women’s priorities have been raised to provoke change on multiple levels of the food industry globally. In the past, the sugar boycott was just one of many boycotts led by women as part of a larger Pure Foods Movement. Continuing today, women’s movements have been springing up around the world. Indigenous Zapatistas protesting corporate land grabbing in Mexico, led by Comandante Ramona, the female leader of the movement, have made their way onto the world stage (Barndt, 2008). In the past year, female tea pickers in Kerala went on strike for higher wages and won against the large multinational Indian tea company, Tata (“6,000 Female Indian Tea Workers Win Fight against Multinational,” 2015). These are just some of protests occurring across the globe. By reasserting the involvement of women in all levels of the food industry—as farmers, sellers, buyers, and preparers of food—these women have created a global community and inspired change. Beyond a search for equity in payment and management positions, reclaiming power means fundamentally redefining the meaning of the food industry as an interconnected community, not a purposefully fragmented hierarchal machine. This community could work to attain an understanding of how the patriarchal capitalist system exploits each level. Then, the search for solutions can begin.
Barndt, D. (2008). Tangled routes: Women, work, and globalization on the tomato trail. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Berry, W. (1977). The unsettling of America: Culture & agriculture. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.
Doss, C. (2011, March). The role of women in agriculture. Retrieved from http://www.fao.org/docrep/013/am307e/am307e00.pdf
Holcomb, J. (n.d.). “Blood-Stained Goods: The Transatlantic Boycott of Slave Labor”
Human Rights Watch (2007, May). Discounting Rights: Wal-Mart’s Violation of US Workers’ Right to Freedom of Association. Retrieved from https://www.hrw.org/reports/2007/us0507/5.htm
Mehra, R. (2008). A Significant Shift: Women, Food, and Security in a Global Marketplace. Retrieved November 20, 2015, from https://www.icrw.org/files/publications/A-Significant-Shift-Women-Food%20Security-and-Agriculture-in-a-Global-Marketplace.pdf
Mies, M. (1986). Patriarchy and accumulation on a world scale: Women in the international division of labour. London: Zed Books.
6,000 female Indian tea workers win fight against multinational. (2015, October 19). Retrieved from http://nytlive.nytimes.com/womenintheworld/2015/10/19/6000-female-indian-tea-workers-win-fight-against-multinational/