4.3.8. Cross-Cutting Lenses on Food Security and the Value Chain Approach


Gender plays an extremely important role in determining food security across availability, access and utilization.


Women make up approximately 43 percent of the agricultural labor force in developing countries, ranging from 20 percent in Latin America to 50 percent in Africa and Asia.[1] In many countries women are also those primarily responsible for field production, particularly of staple foods. Yet throughout the developing world women in agriculture have access to fewer productive resources than men.

Programs aiming to increase value chain productivity need to determine women's roles in production, marketing and service provision. Where there are challenges, programs should focus on eliminating women's constraints to accessing the productive resources required to upgrade, including capacity building, access to improved inputs and access to finance.


It is now widely accepted that increasing women’s incomes has a disproportionate effect on household food security compared to increasing men’s incomes. Women tend to spend their resources within the household on food, education, and other productive means. That said, overburdening women through income generating activities risks having a negative impact on nutrition.[2]

While programs should focus on increasing women's incomes, it is essential that in doing so, they do not increase the already heavy burden on women's time. Wherever possible increases in incomes should come from upgrading strategies that incorporate labor-saving technologies and improved efficiencies that free up women's time for more productive activities. These include reducing the time women spend on household chores such as the collection of water and fuel through improved stoves and rainwater harvesting; increasing the productivity of women’s farming tasks through improved hoes, planters, and grinding mills and improved techniques such as intercropping and mulching, which results in reduced weeding time; and improving the efficiency of food processing to help them earn more income in less time or with less effort.[3]


Women are central in household decisions around food selection, preparation, storage and allocation, all decisions that have major impacts on utilization. For example, research has shown that there is often little correlation between household caloric intake and individual caloric intake because households prioritize members' consumption differently.[4] Women often play a significant role in determining that allocation, albeit guided by societal norms. Women are also the main providers of childcare, and nutrition of infants and young children is critical to preventing stunting and ensuring good cognitive development.

Improving nutrition requires behavior change of individuals within the household. This requires that messages reach directly to the household members that are responsible for food selection, preparation, storage and allocation tasks. While women play a major role in food decisions in many cultures, it is increasingly recognized that projects need to target both women and men with utilization messaging given the role that men often play in influencing women's decision-making.[5]

Potential Interventions

  • Improve women's access to productive resources. Remove obstacles preventing women from accessing productive resources, such as land, finance, information, improved inputs, and others. Bolstering human capital (e.g. literacy, numeracy, self-confidence) supports many women to effectively engage. Focus on upgrading women's activities where they are already engaged.
  • Facilitate access to nutrition information. Incorporate nutrition training for women and men who are involved in household decision-making to promote behaviour change.
  • Invest in improved efficiency. Focus upgrading activities for women on improving efficiency and saving labor so that women can increase the amount of time spent on productive activities. These activities include labor-saving technologies such as mechanized grain mills and micro-irrigation; improving agricultural practices to improve productivity; and support opportunities that allow women to work at home.[6]


Resilience cuts across all aspects of food security (availability, access and utilization) and so it does not stand alone as a pillar of food security. Food security can be destabilized by shocks and/or cyclical events that affect individuals, households and entire communities or countries. Common shocks that affect food security include:

  • Food price volatility. There is increasing international volatility in food prices, caused by such factors as the policies of food exporting countries (e.g. export bans), increased investment in biofuels, and climate change.[7] These price spikes have multiple consequences, including shifts away from nutritious food, reduced food intake, school drop-out, and reductions in health spending and assets. For poor households, these price increases can severely reduce household access to food.[8]
  • Illness. Severe illness, such as that caused by HIV/AIDS, has a serious impact on the ability of food insecure populations to make use of nutritious food. The utilization aspect of food security is therefore the most frequently affected for people suffering from HIV and AIDS because the amount of energy required to undertake the same amount of daily activity is diminished. Adults with HIV have 10 to 30 percent higher energy requirements than a healthy adult without HIV, and children with HIV 50 to 100 percent higher than normal requirements.[9] Reduced utilization can also feedback to affect production, and food availability because when a person’s energy level is lower, they are eventually less likely to undertake production at the same level. While ARVs can help obviate this crisis in the short term, the implications for the reorganization of family labour are that children and the elderly are often forced to work harder in order to achieve food security.
  • Household economic loss. Conflict, drought, job loss and other sudden disruptions in household food production or income may have a dramatic impact on households' ability to produce and purchase food. Such shocks are particularly challenging for families that lack adequate coping strategies.

Other factors that can impact on resiliency include the effects of climate change, information asymmetries and the lack of a predictable business enabling environment (such as due to corruption).

Potential Interventions

The appropriate strategies for bolstering food security resiliency vary significantly based on the context. Two overarching ways in which the value chain approach can address resilience include improving market functionality, and improving the household's ability to cope with instability.

  • Improve market functionality. Although many threats to food security stability cannot be addressed with the value chain approach (e.g. weather patterns), the value chain approach is well suited to addressing one common source of food insecurity: poor market functionality. Households that cannot be certain food will be available from markets throughout the year are more likely to pursue economic strategies that mitigate risk but also reduce returns, such as by producing staple foods in which they lack a competitive advantage. The value chain approach is suited to identifying the factors that affect market functionality - instability in the policy market, poor infrastructure, weak incentives[10] - and addressing them.
  • Strengthen household risk mitigation and coping strategies. At the household level, food security is less likely to be compromised when households have the tools to mitigate potential risks and cope with them when they do occur. Many traditional value chain interventions support this by increasing the productivity of household food production and the profitability of economic activities. Diversifying income sources can address the seasonal food security gap that affects many smallholder farmers. Strategies that can benefit very vulnerable populations with less resilience are discussed here.


  1. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2010-2011:  The State of Food and Agriculture, Rome:  2011, 6.  
  2. Shenggen Fan and Joanna Brzeska, The Nexus between Agriculture and Nutrition: Do Growth Patterns an d Conditional Factors Matter?, 2
  3. Marilyn Carr and Maria Hartl, Lightening the Load:  Labour-Saving Technologies and Practices for Rural Women, 2010.
  4. Diskin, Understanding Linkages among Food Availability, Access, Consumption, and Nutrition in Africa: Empirical Findings and Issues from the Literature, 1994, 16
  5. Meinzen-Dick et al, Gender: A key dimension linking agricultural programs to improved nutrition and health, 2
  6. Diskin, Understanding Linkages among Food Availability, Access, Consumption, and Nutrition in Africa: Empirical Findings and Issues from the Literature, 1994, vi
  7. http://www1.worldbank.org/prem/poverty/food/102110/player.html 
  8. Del Ninno et al, Food Aid and Food Security in the Short and Long Run: Country Experience from Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, 2004, 89
  9. UNAIDS. 
  10. Del Ninno et al, Food Aid and Food Security in the Short and Long Run: Country Experience from Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, 2004, 97.