The Importance of Food Sovereignty for Women Farmers

Women farmers, in many parts of the world, are coming up with innovative ways to combat climate change and a global food system that needs fixing. By adopting agroecological approaches to growing their own sustainable nutritious food without the need for harmful chemical fertilisers and pesticides, they are not only protecting the environment and their health, but they are also gaining food sovereignty.

To cover this topic, we talked with Sandy McClure, Director of Philanthropic Partnerships at Global Greengrants Fund UK (GGF UK). They work with women farmers in Africa, Asia and Latin America who are on their path to gaining food sovereignty.

Sandy McClure - Global Greengrants Fund UK - Interview Ogunte.comGlobal Greengrant funds UK logo








Servane Mouazan for Ogunte: What is Global Greengrants Fund?

Sandy McClure: Global Greengrants Fund is a global environmental organisation. We support grassroots community solutions to environmental degradation and climate change around the world. We do this by making small grants of around £4,000 directly to community groups who are already addressing these issues and who need financial support to implement their ideas. Last year we made 1,000 grants globally and since we started. we’ve made 14,000!

We are an intermediary fund, that means we help other donors to reach communities at the grassroots level, often rural, overlooked, and generally difficult for bigger funding mechanisms to reach. Our model allows us to have direct links into communities who are most impacted and to women, indigenous people, young people and people living with disabilities who are coming up with great ideas and solutions to climate change and environmental degradation.

Where global GreenGrant Funds grantees are

Servane Mouazan: How do you find the communities who need funding?

Sandy McClure: We have a network of 150 local advisors around the world who identify groups who need funding. The advisors are from the communities we serve so they have cultural and place-based knowledge, and they know what is going on in their own communities. They are professionals working in the environmental space who typically have day jobs for example running their own NGO’s, as academics, even documentary filmmakers, they come from a range of backgrounds. What they have in common is their passion for the environment and their own activism. The role of the advisor is a voluntary role. It’s these ingredients that makes the model so effective. Different people experience the environment differently and need solutions that are appropriate to their context.  This enables us to learn as we go.

Servane Mouazan: Tell us about the importance of food sovereignty - what does it mean and why it is important?

Sandy McClure: Our relationship with food ties us directly to our landscapes. Humanity depends on the planet to provide for our survival. But today’s dominant model of food production and agriculture has created a rift in this symbiosis: mostly defined by industrialisation, corporatisation, and specialisation. The problem with the dominant food system is that it undermines food cultures, it does not alleviate hunger and malnutrition, and has consolidated power in the hands of corporate agribusiness and transnationals.

Servane Mouazan: Why is the concept of food sovereignty key for this new relationship with nature?

Sandy McClure: Food Sovereignty is about the ability for people to sustainably control their access to food, so to produce and consume their own locally produced food. Over time, this means greater resilience and less vulnerability in times of crises, and an approach of regeneration ensures that we are not depleting natural resources to the point of collapse.

This has become more and more acute over the past year when COVID hit. We all felt it here too when there was no food on the shelves in the supermarket during lockdown - we felt vulnerable, then we started thinking about it.
We are all more and more aware of the connection between food and health/wellbeing, and resilience to shocks, it’s not just an issue affecting people in the Global South.

Servane Mouazan: How do you compare industrial agriculture on one hand with agroecology on the other hand?

Sandy McClure: Industrial agriculture is grounded in the use of fossil fuel and high energy consumption. It encourages mono-cropping which erodes the soil and diminishes crop diversity. It is dependent on petroleum-based fertilisers and pesticides which are bad for our health, erode soil fertility, pollute water sources, and which drive poor farmers into debt. Industrial agriculture fails to prevent hunger and malnutrition.

Conversely, agroecology is food production based on native crops and seeds grown using organic methods which put the nutrients back into the soil. It is an incredibly important strategy in the fight to reduce carbon emissions, preserve biodiversity and protect our natural resources.

Agroecology is reliant on indigenous crops which are more adaptable to local climates and yield more frequently with less rainfall. This is important because they are more resilient to the extreme weather conditions that are experienced by farmers in many countries, typically prolonged periods of drought, followed by flooding.

GGF supports communities to revive regenerative agricultural practices, grow native seeds to improve crop yield, reduce carbon emissions, and restore soil that has been degraded by pesticide use and mono-cropping.

70% of the world’s food produced is by small scale farmers. If we can support them in agroecological practices, we can tackle food insecurity, hunger and malnutrition.

Servane Mouazan: Can you share a couple of stories of change based around agroecology?

Sandy McClure: Let me introduce you to Maria Loretha who has sown seeds of positive change through Sorghum, an ancient Indonesian crop. Maria Loretha - Sorghum producer

Maria Loretha lives on the island of Flores in Indonesia. Changing weather patterns on the island due to climate change left them with little or no rain which meant that rice and maize crops failed. Despite tons of chemical fertilizers, successive crops failed and the local families were left hungry, in debt, and faced with the prospect of leaving to become migrant workers in order to survive.

Maria decided to do something about it, she remembered a crop that her ancestors grew and went to search for it. She spent months travelling around East Flores and talking to the elders before she eventually found the native sorghum seed varieties that used to grow prolifically in the region. Sorghum is an ancient crop – now known in the Global North for its superfood qualities – but it had almost died out on Flores after successive governments encouraged farmers to grow commercial white rice varieties instead, dubbing sorghum an inferior crop that should be fed to animals.

Instead, Maria Loretha found another way. And using a GGF grant she mobilized the women of the Likotuden area to plant 30 acres of sorghum using the old seed varieties she had collected from the elders. It’s more labour intensive than rice and maize but doesn’t need as much water as rice, critical in a changing climate. It’s also more nutritious and versatile than these other grains.

Maria Loeretha - Sorghum  Producer

 We all know that when we eat sorghum, we feel fuller for longer than eating white rice,” says Maria, “And it can be cooked as a porridge, made into a flour, cooked into brownies, pizza or a pop-sorghum like popcorn!

It has now expanded to other parts of Indonesia. For the women of Likotuden, sorghum has become a route to independence, allowing them to break free from a reliance on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, from the devastating impact of drought and a cycle of poverty.

My second story is about Ogoni Women in Niger Delta


This is Beatrice. She lives on the banks of the Niger Delta in Ogoniland, an area of Nigeria devastated by over 4 decades of oil spills, which have contaminated the water and soil. Despite government promises, the area is still awaiting the clean up needed to restore the natural environment.

GGF-Climate Crisis -Oil Spills- Ogoniland Nigeria

Beatrice and other women can’t wait any longer, they are taking matters into their own hand. They are doing their own cleanup, restoring the mangroves by growing new saplings from seed and planting them. Mangroves are among the most productive natural environments in that they provide a variety of important functions: Essential breeding grounds for fish, an essential source of food for poor coastal communities. The wood is an important source of building material and fuel and which also maintains water quality as they filter our pollutants.

In relation to Climate Change, mangroves are hugely important in absorbing carbon emissions, ten times more so than rainforest.

In tandem, they have also developed a business, growing native fruit trees such as avocado pear, monkey kola, and star-fruits, which were on the brink of extinction because they can’t survive in polluted soil and water. Through growing the fruit saplings in a nursery and selling them they have created a way to protect native foods and create new livelihoods for themselves which in the process has transformed local economies. They are now training other women in how to grow and look after the trees.

The women are known as the Lokiaka Women Development Centre. With three grants from GGF totalling £8,700, the group established training sessions to teach women to cultivate fruit trees and mangroves as an essential part of the clean-up process and economic independence for women in Ogoniland.

Servane Mouazan: What happens if we don’t do anything?

Sandy McClure: As the Climate Crisis worsens the dominant model in the food production system further fails and more people are left without food.

Servane Mouazan: How has COVID contributed to the importance of food sovereignty?

Sandy McClure: When the pandemic started in the UK, people started panic buying and we were all worried about food shortages. If you translate that into the lives of farmers the crisis is magnified: those who produce single commodities, like coffee and cocoa, were unable to sell their produce when international markets shut down, and those who produced for local markets couldn’t sell as local markets were shut. They were not only totally cut off from making a living but also didn’t have anything to eat. 

Our grantees often tell us they want to have more of a choice in how they produce their food, so we’ve supported communities in starting up beekeeping, growing their own kitchen gardens, mushroom farms and more, to enable them to have a greater diversity of food crops that they use for themselves. By doing this they can be more resilient to future shocks.

Servane Mouazan: How else did the pandemic contribute to environmental issues?

Sandy McClure: Overall the pandemic exacerbated existing environmental degradation. For instance. there was a greater push for deforestation, and existing inequalities were further exposed. But the positives are that people are thinking more about how they can produce food for themselves, local food that is more diverse.

Across the geographies, people are making the connections to climate change, if we continue to produce in this unsustainable way, we are contributing to the climate crisis, but we can take the opportunity now to produce food in an agroecological way.

Servane Mouazan: We noticed that Global Greengrants Fund works intersectionally? Why is this important?

Sandy McClure: To tackle these issues, it so important to be working with those we are directly affected and already coming up with and working on solutions, these are women, indigenous people, people with disabilities, young people.

Servane Mouazan: Why women?

Sandy McClure: Women are the farmers and the caretakers of the community. They are also the food producers for the community, and we know they are disproportionately impacted, feeling the effects of climate change and environmental pollution first. The crops fail, the soil and water are polluted, and ultimately, they experience first-hand how this affects health and economics.

The examples I gave earlier are about women who were already doing this work before we came along,

Women are not one homogenous group either, so we need to respond more to their specific and complex needs.

Servane Mouazan: Why indigenous people?

Sandy McClure: Indigenous people are 5 % of the population but their territories are 80% of the most critical rainforest and land needed to mitigate climate change. Therefore, they want to protect their own cultural heritage and traditions which are deeply connected to and intertwined with the land, and the need to look after it.

Servane Mouazan: Why young people?

Sandy McClure: Young people are the ones coming up with innovative ideas, but too often, they are either ignored or not listened to. At GGF, we want to invest in new ideas and we have a high-risk appetite.

Servane Mouazan: Why people living with disabilities?

Sandy McClure: Extracting natural resources doesn’t just pollute and contribute to climate change, it can cause disabilities. People with disabilities make up 15% of the world’s population. They are traditionally stigmatised and hidden away from society because of our ideas about what it means to have a disability. They have a lot to contribute to this field. Ford Foundation partnered with Global Greengrants Fund to deepen their understanding of how environmental and disability movements intersect and what can be done to support them. This is an emerging field and we need more people to understand the issue.

Servane Mouazan: Why is system change needed to tackle Environmental and Social Justice?

Sandy McClure: Our grantees tell us that the food system isn’t working for them. The food system is not functioning because hunger and malnutrition still exist. Multiple systems are under stress, so when COVID comes along, markets and supply chains are shut down, the system fails.
It’s the same system that is exploiting extraction, that has led to the climate crisis, a system that is also exploiting people, oppressing women and indigenous people.

But what we have now is an opportunity for change.
Just like we all felt the air was cleaner during the lockdown, we can do things differently.


Servane Mouazan: How can we do things differently after this period?

Sandy McClure: It’s about addressing the root causes and using an environmental and social justice approach to transform our economic and social systems for a more equitable future, rather than trying to fix a system that doesn’t work.

We can’t stop the climate crisis if we don’t transform the systems

Servane Mouazan: I can hear people saying “how does a small grant lead to systems change?”

Sandy McClure: We have a wide lens on this, so that collectively by seeding 1,000s of small initiatives to protect, restore and transform the environment, then it all adds up to have a large impact. We are seeding an environmental justice movement through our grantmaking.
Systems changes also happen by supporting women particularly; challenging patriarchy seeds systems change as women get involved in political processes.

Tinkering at the edges isn’t going to change this.

Social movements exist that are tackling the climate crisis and equality issues holistically. It is this response that we need to bring about and amplify.

Servane Mouazan: Imagine it is 2030, what breakthrough do you think we will have achieved?

Sandy McClure: If we don’t do anything the climate crisis will be dire. We can tackle this if…

  • indigenous communities are given the resources to scale up the protection of forests
  • women are equitable actors in the food production system,

Then we will see these climate mitigation impacts.

If people want to give to us to support these groups then we can, but we don’t have a vehicle to make loans. Overall it’s not just about GGF as our small infrastructure represents just $8-9 million per year. It’s a joint effort. We can’t do it on our own. We need more actors collaborating in this responsive and supportive way.

Servane Mouazan: What do you want our readers to think about?

Sandy McClure: ‘In your niche, how do you support women? How much are you thinking about the connections between food systems, economic systems, the climate etc?’

The solutions are out there. We need to remember that it is not about one big intervention but many place-based interventions, and supporting those in a mindful, thoughtful way, combined with changes in our behaviours.

We are participatory fund so that is what it looks like.

In December 2019, GGF UK was chosen by the Guardian and Observer newspaper as a beneficiary of their Christmas Charity Appeal, in support of the fund’s work with indigenous people in the Amazon, to protect, restore and transform the Amazon Rainforest.

About Sandy McClure

Sandy is Director of Philanthropic Partnerships for GGF UK. For the past 20+ years, she has been working in the field of International Development and Human Rights globally. She has worked for international NGOs such as Amnesty International, Action Aid, and Progressio, as well as local community organisations in Afghanistan, Nepal and the UK. Most recently Sandy worked for a grassroots environmental organization in London, running a campaign to reduce single-use plastics. She holds an M.A. in International Relations and International Law from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

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