Women leaders are transforming the food system
Everyone stands to benefit from a transformation to a more equitable food system. International Women’s Day is a great opportunity to celebrate women leaders driving positive change.
Women play essential roles in food systems, but their contributions are often not formally recognised, and women face obstacles to engaging on equitable terms. This is especially noticeable in countries with a strong patriarchal culture, where women are often denied access to family land, their role in the agricultural enterprise is overlooked, and access to funding opportunities can be restricted.
International Women’s Day (8 March) brings a chance to recognise women leaders who are driving positive change in the agrifood sector. Building an inclusive food system means far more than just ensuring women’s participation and access to benefits. Women need to be empowered to contribute to decision-making and reshaping agrifood systems to build a sustainable future for all – EIT Food is deeply engaged in this mission.
Women as sustainability leaders
According to the European Investment Bank (1), European women are highly aware of the seriousness of climate change and almost half of them (48%) believe it is the biggest challenge citizens of their country face. Women are convinced more often than men that climate change is irreversible, and that human activity is the primary driver (87% of women vs. 81% of men). Women are also much more worried about the impact of climate change on biodiversity and its threat to food and water resources.
Such differences between women and men in perceiving the gravity of environmental crises is linked to what researchers call the “eco-gender gap”. A 2018 survey by the UK market research firm Mintel (2) revealed that 71% of women try to live more ethically, compared to just 59% of men. What’s more, 65% of surveyed women also encourage friends and family to adopt a more environmentally friendly lifestyle, while only 59% of men do.
Elsewhere, the German Environment Agency found that more women (87%) have ethical and environmental concerns over food waste than men (76%) (3). Far more women (38%) than men (19%) are willing to give up meat for reasons of animal welfare and environmental protection.
The eco gender gap is clearly observed in households where women are taking most of the day-to-day decisions, which contribute to limiting plastic, minimising food waste. But we can see that women are also driving green transformation in public life. More female representation in parliament leads countries to adopt more stringent climate change policies, which translates into lower carbon dioxide emissions in countries with more women members of parliament (4).
Effective leadership is especially important in Europe right now and the agrifood sector has a difficult dilemma to resolve. On the one hand, it needs to strengthen food security amid war in Ukraine and a challenging financial environment, while on the other hand it needs to tackle pressing climate change issues. More women need to be taking bold decisions in households, the political sphere, in academia and the business environment. At EIT Food we are empowering women to do so by supporting them on their entrepreneurial paths and enabling women to make environmental impacts through scientific discoveries.
Women as scientific leaders
Women researchers are making food science more resilient, sustainable and closer to consumers’ needs. Over the years EIT Food has supported numerous exceptional women leaders from academia, who stand out from the crowd thanks to their persistence, creativity and a focus on results. Among them are Magdalena Kozłowska, Giedrė Kesiūnaitė and Solveiga Pakštaitė.
The amazing Magdalena Kozłowska is Co-Founder and CEO of NapiFeryn BioTech, which has developed a patented technology to obtain healthy proteins from rapeseed as an alternative to unsustainable protein production such as intensive livestock agriculture. Some 15% of all human-related greenhouse gas emissions are directly related to meat production (5), making plant proteins a more sustainable alternative. NapiFeryn is a proud member of EIT Food’s RisingFoodStars network.
Giedrė Kesiūnaitė is founder of Milgogi, a food startup that develops meat alternatives with a unique fibrous muscle texture. Kesiūnaitė, who has a chemistry doctorate, began her entrepreneurial journey by participating in EIT Food’s Empowering Women in Agrifood Programme. "Everything started from my personal need. I was trying to change my diet and eat less meat and was looking for a healthy, high nutritional value protein source as a meat replacement," says Kesiūnaitė. After developing whole-cut tasty meat alternatives, she is now helping people to change their diet without changing their eating habits. She is also EIT Food Seedbed alumni.
Women as entrepreneurial leaders
Women-founded startups raised only 1.9% of all venture capital (VC) funds in 2022, which is a decrease in comparison to 2021, though mixed gender founding teams acquired 17.2% of the capital invested (6). Evidently there is still an enormous gender gap in access to start-up funding, which is why leadership programmes boosting women’s confidence and providing safe spaces for growth are important. One example is EIT Food’s WE Lead Food Programme. At the same time, activities targeting an increase of women investors and awareness raising on the issue among VCs are crucial. The EIT community is supporting those actions through the Supernovas programme, which among other goals aims to help women start their careers in venture investment and to promote their inclusion in investor teams.
Mimica is creating the next generation of food expiry labelling that reduces food waste and improves food safety. “We have gained so many benefits from joining RisingFoodStars. From getting exposure across the European food industry to scaling our vision, and the opportunity to apply for funded projects to continue innovating,” says Mimica founder Solveiga Pakštaitė. An industrial designer by trade, Pakštaitė has a passion for user-centric, sustainable design. Her desire to reduce food waste and create sustainable packaging led to creating this successful startup, which has already secured over €1 million in grants and funding.
Tackling the pressures of high inflation and food insecurity – due to war and climate change – will require action from everyone regardless of gender, age or ethnicity. This is why when we speak about women’s roles in transforming food systems, we cannot isolate this from the efforts men are taking at the same time. What we need is cross-gender collaboration with mutual respect towards each other’s capabilities, skills and experiences. How can this work in practice? Join a panel discussion on International Women’s Day (8 March, 16.30 CET) and discover for yourself! Among speakers you will find:
- Moa Westman, Gender Specialist at the European Investment Bank
- Marja Liisa Meurice, Director of the EIT Food CLC NE
- Giedrė Kesiūnaitė, Founder of Milgogi
- Miro Hegedić, CEO of Lean Startup Croatia
- Maarten van der Kamp, Education Director, EIT Food
- EIB: 2019-2020 climate survey
- Mintel: The Eco Gender Gap (2018)
- Umwelt Bundesamt: Umweltbewusstsein in Deutschland 2016
- Mavisakalyan, Astghik; Tarverdi, Yashar (2018): Gender and climate change: Do female parliamentarians make difference?
- FAO: Tackling climate change through livestock
- Tech Crunch: Women-founded startups raised 1.9% of all VC funds in 2022, a drop from 2021