Food prices continue to rise, threatening to push more and more people into poverty and hunger. A new report from the UN food agency says one of the best ways to boost agricultural productivity worldwide would be to remove the barriers women farmers face that their male counterparts do not.
Women farmers tend to be less productive than men, but there are good reasons for that, says Agnes Quisumbing, an economist with the International Food Policy Research Institute.
"If you actually look closer and look at the resources that women farmers are bringing to their plots, they're actually starting off with much less," she says.
The new FAO report finds that while women make up 43 percent of the world's farmers, only about 10 to 20 percent own the land they farm. Without land for collateral, it is harder for them to get credit to buy inputs such as better seeds and fertilizers. In many countries, women are half as likely as men to use fertilizers to increase yields.
In addition, many of the world's women are raising their children at the same time they're farming, which also may help explain why their productivity is lower than men's.
"Helping women farmers have the same access to inputs and control of resources that male farmers have would really do a lot toward improving agriculture productivity and reducing hunger and malnutrition," says Quisumbing.
According to the FAO report, closing the gender gap could increase agricultural output in the developing world by as much as four percent, which in turn could reduce the number of undernourished people by as much as 17 percent.
Quisumbing was a collaborator on the FAO report. She says rather than playing for sympathy, the report makes the business case for focusing on women farmers.
"We hear a lot about how women are disadvantaged. And they tend to be very bleeding-heart arguments. But bleeding-heart arguments don't necessarily tell heads of state to move their money."
Quisumbing says governments would be wise to back programs which help close the gap for women farmers - for example, vouchers that help them buy better seeds and fertilizers.
But beyond financial support, she adds, in many countries the policy environment needs to change, too. "I think it's about time governments come on board and really look at their laws, which discriminate against women in the area of property, in the area of labor force participation, in the area of marriage law."
Quisumbing believes leveling the playing field has wider benefits beyond the women themselves. That's because studies show when women have financial resources, they are more likely than men to spend them on food, health and educating their children. And that means a better future for the next generation.