Helping solve gender issues while trying to solve sustainability and environmental issues at the same time, Penn State scientists from the College of Agricultural Sciences started a project designed to help women in Cambodia increase sustainable food production.

The project, “Women in Agriculture Network Cambodia: Gender and Ecologically Sensitive Agriculture,” was awarded by the Feed the Future Sustainable Intensification Innovation Lab, located at Kansas State University, Deanna Behring, the director of international programs in the College of Agricultural Sciences, said via email.

“Our college is launching a Gender in Agriculture and Environment Initiative to share our expertise in gender issues more broadly,” Behring said.

Rick Bates, the principal investigator of the project and a professor of Horticulture, worked with other faculty and staff from the Horticulture department as well as from rural sociology, agriculture economics, ecology and other various disciplines.

“The project deals with gender issues and nutrition through sustainable intensification,” Bates said.

The idea to start this project in Cambodia had been derived from other existing projects, Leif Jensen, co-principal investigator, said.

Having existing projects already in Honduras and Pennsylvania, researchers “decided to take this concept globally,” Behring said.

With an increase in human population but a decrease in new land, researchers realized they had to find a way to help farmers increase food production on existing land that was still environmentally friendly, Bates said.

“The goal is to enhance production, but to do so without damaging the ecology or the environment,” Jensen said.

Some methods to increase sustainable food production include drip irrigation, a system that produces food with less water, planting crops that will repel pests, looking at soil health or mulching are all ways to help increase food production in an environmentally friendly way, Bates said.

Aside from focusing on increasing food production through sustainability, researchers also decided to incorporate gender issues into their project.

“On average, women comprise 43 percent of the agriculture labor force in developing countries,” according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

However, women do not have as much control over decision-making and resources, Behring said.

“Women are very central to the agricultural system in many of these developing countries so we want to make sure they have equal access,” Bates said.

Working with women and engaging them to work with sustainable intensification practices, researchers can help make gender practices equal, Bates said.

“Cambodian women already rank fairly high on the Women's Empowerment in Agriculture Index, a measure that allows for monitoring the status of women and comparing countries' progress,” Behring said. “However, more gains could be made in Cambodia by increasing their participation in organizations and their leadership skills to continue to progress and contribute to economic and nutritional gains for them and their families.”

Bates and his team will be traveling to Cambodia next week to work on the project and will be working with partners from Cambodia and other regions.

“We need to intensify the production area that we have already in a sustainable way so that future generations will have healthy lands and food availability,” Bates said

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