By: Ina Joseph
The “hunter - gatherer” complex has been used archaically to distinguish masculine versus feminine roles in society. But feminist discourse, as it often does, has provided some nuance to this trope – proposing that the idea of women as gatherers and caretakers is actually rooted in women’s deeper capacity to cultivate and sustain communities. That said, it’s no wonder women spearhead today’s movement towards sustainable agriculture.
What is Sustainable Agriculture?
Sustainable agriculture consists of the production of food and textiles using environmentally, ecologically, and economically sound methods from water management to biodiversity promotion. But this movement is about more than just Earth-friendly farming. Sustainable agriculture means sustainable communities. It empowers individuals to equip themselves with the tools and knowledge to preserve their communities using "both bodily and culturally” accessible food, as described by Women, Food, and Agriculture Network (WFAN)’s Hannah Breckbill.
“Food is the foundation of civilization; we all need to eat. We all need to access food,” the WFAN board member and northeast Iowa farmer said in identifying the “big picture” link between sustainable agriculture and food justice.
There’s a number of ways women like Hannah have practiced and promoted sustainable agriculture in order to re-shape our food systems. Some have deconstructed colonial land practices while others advocate for land-ownership in marginalized communities. Rhode Island-based mycologist Amélia Vega’s niche? Growing mushrooms and spirulina.
Amélia’s Sustainable Agriculture Story
Amélia currently conducts research and development on spirulina, a nutrient-rich blue-green algae the grows in both salt and fresh water. Despite her specialization, Amélia categorizes herself as a mycologist rather than a phycologist to encapsulate her work with mushrooms and algae as a whole. She’s dedicated her life to growing and learning about mushrooms while finding ways to share the powers of spirulina with the world.
“I was... going to do a documentary on how the world has a stigma against mushrooms and destigmatizing them to open access to medicines and technology that are hidden in these mushrooms.”
It all started while taking a short documentary class at University of Massachusetts Amherst, where Amélia stumbled upon mushrooms as a potential story subject. She was intrigued by the diversity and complexities of mushrooms and was compelled to choose them as the topic of her documentary. Her professor insisted mushrooms were “uninteresting", and so, Amélia was determined to prove him wrong.
“I decided I was also going to do a documentary on how the world has a stigma against mushrooms and destigmatizing them to open access to medicines and technology that are hidden in these mushrooms,” Amélia explained. “I felt so empowered by it all that I went to a mushroom summit; [at the summit I was] exploring nature and finding all these mushrooms and becoming perpetually enchanted by everything they had to offer. It’s endless.”
Amélia’s deep dive into the world of mushrooms eventually led her to spirulina, which is now her full-time passion project. However, even before her documentary class, Amélia was always invested in changing our food systems. In high school, Amélia’s passions surrounded hydroponics and urban farming. These interests evolved into intentions to study sustainable agriculture after taking a course at UMass Amherst called Community Food Systems.
“[The class was about] the red lining of communities and, overall, how food has shaped generational blockage of nutrients - access to grocery stores, how programs put in place to give people access to food don’t work in certain farmers markets almost intentionally... A lot of these intricacies are overlooked because the people that are affected don’t have the power to say anything. That’s incredibly unfair,” Amélia said.
Amelia’s jar of spirulina amongst New York City skyscrapers.
From there, she became “intrigued” by the small-scale food technologies being used in urban spaces to feed entire communities, and how she could help share that knowledge. For Amélia, mushrooms and spirulina presented themselves as the path of least resistance.
Ancient Tools Being Rebirthed
“There’s a farmer that once said spirulina is agriculture’s best kept secret,” Amélia shared. Largely due to a lack of shared data, that farmer was right. Besides its extraordinary nutrient-density, information on spirulina’s exorbitant medical and commercial benefits has largely gone unpublicized. Amélia’s work as a mycologist explores, and is working to publish, everything from spirulina’s anti-inflammatory properties, to cancer-fighting capacities and ability to reduce heart problems.
Amélia’s current efforts to make this information accessible primarily center on two projects: a children’s book on spirulina to encourage small-scale sustainable agriculture from a young age, and an online public information portal dedicated to spirulina.
“It’s important, especially when making first impressions, to highlight that this technology isn’t ours. We don’t want to discredit the communities that have spent thousands of years of using it. We’re borrowing ancient technology and it’s not ours to claim,” Amélia explained when describing the importance of making this information available on such a public platform.
“It’s the spirulina’s power...it belongs to no one. It’s the earth’s, we’re just sharing that technology and knowledge with others in hopes that people will use this to prepare themselves and empower their communities [in] whatever way they see fit."
Spirulina - agriculture’s best kept secret.
The Root of Sustainable Agriculture
Amélia became particularly passionate about “preparing and empowering” communities after seeing the ways our current food system failed during the pandemic. “People realized they were attached to a system that was not providing for them as much as it should have,” she said. “A lot of people were hungry and a lot of people suffered. There wouldn’t have been that level of panic if there had been the right systems and education in place to help.”
And it’s this very fervor for communal livelihood that makes sustainable agriculture so fundamental to our survival, and that makes “women as gatherers” such a fundamental part of the movement. Reducing malnourishment in developing countries, resolving hunger in urban areas, and creating food justice and equity all over the world are all integrally linked to the presence of women in sustainable agriculture.
The rise of women in this space is nothing new, though. It’s been a hot topic in feminist discourse for years. Reminiscent of many other sectors of society, a lack of resources and the entrenchment of sexist stigmas have made women less than half of the agricultural workforce, despite providing more food production and working longer hours than men. Organizations like the Women, Food, and Agriculture Network (WFAN) strive to ensure that these barriers don’t keep women excluded from a fight that they’ve been crucial in over the course of human history.
WFAN’s Hannah Breckbill, who we heard from earlier, says that women’s participation in sustainable agriculture is not only a matter of equity, but is also common sense.
“It doesn’t make sense to have a food system without women at the table,” Hannah said. “For a long time, people have taken for granted that men are in charge of agrobusiness, but that really doesn’t make sense as a notion."
Hannah explained that as agriculture became more industrialized, the “gear-headed” male emphasis on “technique and machination” became the basis of agrobusiness. However, Hannah sees more value in women’s unique capacity to operate machines and cultivate community. “Agriculture is totally about care; care for the soil, care for community,” she explains. “I love seeing the feminine angle of ‘Are we really here to be as efficient as we possibly can? Or are we here to grow food for people in the best and most accessible way we can?’”
Additionally, as a queer woman farmer, Hannah values the importance of all kinds of diverse perspectives in the sustainable agriculture space. Only relying on the voices of “a bunch of white men who own giant farms [and only] grow corn and beans” does not provide merely the same level of insight.
“[For example,] queer people bring a totally different lens of what family is and what community is,” Hannah says. “Women and queer people can think more creatively because they’ve been excluded from systems for so long.”
What Does Sustainable Agriculture Mean To You?
Amélia’s approach in the mycology space also emphasizes the importance of diverse perspectives. After participating in the expansive research of women phycologist in Central America and witnessing the ingenuity of predominately women community leaders in Kenya, Amélia champions sharing knowledge and giving credit where credit is due. And such is the nature of the sustainable agriculture movement.
“It’s all about bringing conversation to table and allowing [communities] to ask questions and develop their own curiosities,” Amélia says.
Amelia Vega wearing Amour Cache’s Cristal Wireless Pocketed Bra ($69).
Amélia realizes how daunting it may seem to grow your own food, let alone provide for your family and friends. But if there’s anything she’s learned by growing mushroom and cultivating algae in her Rhode Island apartment, it’s just how accessible sustainable agriculture truly is. When describing why more people should look into mushroom and algae growing as an entry point into sustainable agriculture, Amélia made it very simple: “It’s mobile, it’s small, and it can provide for a lot of people,” she said. And, most importantly “It’s just so fun!”
Whether you live on farm in the Midwest or in a New York studio apartment, there are multiple ways you can provide for yourself and your community. And, that, Amélia says, is what sustainable agriculture is all about. “The best way to empower a community is by empowering it to provide for itself... With the right knowledge, whole communities can be turned around.”