Women’s increased agricultural labor during harvest season, in addition to domestic house care, often comes at the cost of their health, according to new research from the Tata-Cornell Institute for Agriculture and Nutrition (TCI).
Programs aimed at improving nutritional outcomes in rural India should account for the tradeoffs that women experience when their agricultural work increases, according to the study, “Seasonal time trade-offs and nutrition outcomes for women in agriculture: Evidence from rural India,” which published in the journal Food Policy on March 24.
“To earn more income during peak seasons, landless women have no choice but to spend time in agricultural work, besides engaging in domestic work,” said first author Vidya Vemireddy, Ph.D. ’19, a TCI alumna and assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad. “In contrast, women who have larger farms or higher incomes may choose to reduce the time they spend on agriculture and household activities via hired labor or labor-saving technologies.”
To see how time constraints impact women’s nutritional outcomes, Vemireddy and TCI director Prabhu Pingali surveyed 960 women from rural Maharashtra, India, about their time use and diets. Their work included an index of standardized local recipes to measure nutrient intake and cooking time.
Pingali is also a professor in the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, with joint appointments in the Division of Nutritional Sciences and the Department of Global Development in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Women in rural India face severe constraints on time. They spend about 32% of their time on agricultural activities such as transplanting, weeding and harvesting, while also responsible for unpaid household labor like cooking, cleaning, fetching water and caring for children, Vemireddy and Pingali say. This workload increases during peak agricultural seasons, when they must spend up to five and a half hours per day sowing and harvesting.
Men, by comparison, face fewer time constraints since they spend very little time doing housework.
During peak agricultural seasons, the increased labor leaves women with less time for other personal activities. Vemireddy and Pingali found that these time trade-offs are associated with a decrease in caloric, protein, iron and zinc intake. More specifically, each 100-rupee increase in a woman’s agricultural wages per day – meaning she spent more time working on the farm – is associated with a loss of 112.3 calories, 1.5 g of protein, 0.7 mg of iron and 0.4 mg of zinc.
This decrease is likely due to the women having less time and energy to cook nutritious meals, according to Pingali. “Most of the women we surveyed cooked two meals per day,” Pingali said. “When faced with a longer workday on the farm, they might have less time to cook in the morning or be too tired in the evening, choosing instead to make easier, less time-consuming, and less nutritious dishes.”
These nutritional deficits are worse for landless women who work on other people’s farms, grow only food crops, or grow a mix of food and cash crops. By contrast, women who own large tracts of land and specialize in cash crops like cotton see little decline in nutrition during peak seasons, possibly because they have higher incomes.
The negative relationship between women’s nutrition and increased farm work has important implications for development programs and interventions that seek to use agriculture to improve nutrition outcomes, such as encouraging households to grow kitchen gardens, the researchers said.
“Agricultural policies and programs that require greater involvement of women must recognize the consequences of increased time burdens and their adverse effects on nutrition,” Vemireddy said. “The programs should be designed in such a way that the benefits of women’s participation in agriculture outweigh the losses, such as time for well-being enhancing activities.”
Vemireddy and Pingali said labor-saving strategies and technologies can lower the burdens placed on women by agricultural and household labor.
However, they said, managing time burdens alone can only improve nutrition so much. Successfully addressing malnutrition in India will still require a reorientation of the country’s food policies to make nutrient-rich foods more accessible and affordable.
Dan Verderosa is the communications and outreach manager for the Tata-Cornell Institute for Agriculture and Nutrition.