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Ann Tutwiler interviewed for the Women for Expo website

Ann Tutwiler, Director General of Bioversity International and Ambassador of Women for Expo

In an interview for Women for Expo, Ann invites everyone to Bioversity International's Expo 2015 event on agricultural biodiversity, value chains and women’s empowerment that will take place on 17 September 2015 in Milan, Italy.

Q: “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life”. The theme of Expo 2015 is closely linked to the world of women. How can women make a difference?

Ann Tutwiler (AT): Women account for a large share of the world’s farmers, particularly in developing countries. Furthermore, they are most responsible for feeding their families in many parts of the world, as well as playing a critical role in feeding the Planet. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) recently estimated that if women had equal access to resources as men, the agricultural production in the world would increase by 2.5-4 %. This could nourish up to 150 million people, which is more than the population of Russia.

Here at Bioversity International, we have been working directly with women in different regions of the world for decades, building capacity for plant variety selection, transformation and promotion of nutritious yet underutilized crops into products suitable for both sale and household consumption.

This work is having a positive impact on their families, and the additional earnings generated from women’s entrepreneurial activities are being used for community needs. Furthermore, on-farm maintenance of these neglected species contributes to their safeguarding, offering the society more options to cope with pests and diseases, climate change and market shocks.   
Q: Women for Expo, in the sense of “us”, thinking and acting collectively. How important is the sense of female alliance, women networking for the future of our planet?

AT: Women play a vital role in promoting global food security. For example, in South Asia as well as in sub-Saharan Africa the agricultural sector and its related services are the main source of women’s employment. The majority of smallholder farmers are women, and women remain highly involved in activities related to fishing. They are engaged in all aspects of agriculture in the broadest sense, from producing to conserving and processing food, in varying degrees. For example, women are frequently involved in sowing, soil preparation, weeding, crop harvesting and storage, breeding livestock and small animals, post-harvest operations and the preparation of food for the family. But it goes further. Women have other responsibilities, including the selection, preservation and storage of local varieties of seeds as well as the transmission of knowledge related to their use; their primary work of taking care of children and the elderly; the collection of water, non-timber forest products and firewood.

Yet, despite their critical role in agricultural systems, women are generally underrepresented in agricultural decision-making, which still tends to be a male-dominated world. Networks and alliances are important instruments used to support each other, to be more active and engaged, and to put ourselves in positions where we can make decisions and influence the direction of policies and agricultural economy.
Q: In terms of sustainability and nutrition, what is the key issue for women: greater access to economic resources, the right to education or equality and power in politics?

AT: This depends on the country. In most developing countries, women need greater access to economic resources: this would make a substantial contribution to the fight against hunger and malnutrition, but is not alone sufficient. Education is key, and can create a major shift. Through education, more equality can occur, and as a result more influence on the government systems themselves.
Q: Fighting waste is an important theme. What do you think could be the role of women in this battle that tends to be fought from the bottom? What is your recipe for feeding the planet and increasing care and sustainability elements to food consumption, and what measure do you adopt in your daily life to prevent waste?

AT:  In most countries women are the primary caregivers, the people responsible for feeding their families; therefore they have the possibility and responsibility to reduce waste in the production and cooking of food. Other women who are in positions of influence can work closely with large companies and policymakers to try to reduce waste in food systems at national and global level.

We should not forget that, in richer countries, food waste is a problem that mainly focuses on the waste in value chains, restaurants, and households’ refrigerators and plates.

In poorer countries, the challenge consists in increasing the agricultural production in a sustainable way and reducing losses at the farm and post-harvest level, resulting from poor storage techniques, damage from pests and diseases and climate change. Enabling farmers’ access to improved seeds and management practices like, for instance, agroforestry, crop rotation and the use of new technologies can help address these issues.

In my daily life, I try not to purchase more food than what I am going to need in the coming days. It is a matter of personal habit: cooking, learning how to turn fruits and vegetables which are not fresh anymore into desserts and other products, not ordering too much food at restaurants if you cannot finish it. These are simple but effective habits that anybody can easily adopt.
Q: Food says a lot about us: our origins, traditions and family ties. Can you tell us which is your favorite food/dish/ingredient?

AT: This is such a big world to enjoy! I like different types of food, but my favorite dish is lamb, prepared any style: Italian with rosemary, Greek with oregano and couscous. I thoroughly appreciate the diversity of food, and the social interaction that it can provide.
Q: You can recommend a project, a book, an association or an event if you wish.

AT: Bioversity International is co-organizing - with the Italian Ministry for Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation and other partners - an event on agricultural biodiversity, value chains and women’s empowerment for EXPO Milano 2015 that will take place on the 17th of September 2015 at Palazzo Castiglioni, Corso Venezia 47, Milan. You are all invited to join us!

  • The following Bioversity International policy brief looks at the empowerment of women through neglected and underutilized species: Rudebjer, P., Meldrum, G., Padulosi, S., Hall, R., Hermanowicz, E. Realizing the promise of neglected and underutilized species. Policy Brief. 2014. Bioversity International, Rome.
  • The following FAO publication provides good ideas on how to improve women’s role in agriculture: The role of women in Agriculture. ESA Working Paper No.11-02. March 2011.


This interview was originally published on the Women for Expo website, also in Italian