A stream cuts through a vegetation field.
The second week of the Water for Food Global Forum discussed women innovators in agriculture. Photo courtesy of Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute.

An all-women panel at a global agriculture forum raised awareness about the lack of women role models in agriculture Oct. 14.

The Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute that organized the month-long forum in October has a mission to achieve sustainable agriculture through research and education. The forum has different themes each week about solving food and water insecurity. The panel on Oct. 14 focused on “Women innovators working to solve farming challenges.”

Conversations around diversity and inclusivity are slowly integrating into every industry, including agriculture. Money Where Our Mouths Are, a research about funding gaps for women innovators in agriculture, showed 7% of investment funds went to women-founding companies in 2018. The research also found a pattern of less female representation in larger companies.

Amy Wu, a journalist and panelist at the forum, said she noticed very few women leaders in agriculture when she was working in Salinas Valley, California, where 80% of vegetables in the country are produced. Wu interviewed women of color in the agriculture sector to shed light to their stories. She then compiled the interviews and made it into a documentary called, “From Farms to Incubators.”

Wu said women are involved in 60 to 80% of the world’s food production, yet their voices aren’t heard in the male-dominated industry.

“I wanted to use storytelling to amplify the voices of women founders,” Wu said.

Fatma Kaplan, a scientist and another panelist at the forum, said she didn’t think she would start a company during the COVID-19 pandemic. Kaplan said she discovered the ability of nematodes’ sex pheromones to regulate other behaviors of parasitic and beneficial nematodes. Her research on using pheromones to control insect and nematode pests led to the buildup of her company, Pheronym, as she wanted to bring that technology into the global market.

Kaplan said she recalled being on a field trip with her son’s class when a girl came up to her and asked if she was a doctor. Kaplan said, “Yes, but I’m not a doctor of medicine.”

Kaplan said she never thought she’d be a role model to girls. She said women often aren’t encouraged to pursue higher positions. 

Claire Kinlaw, director of innovation commercialization at The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center at Missouri, supports agriculture startups by funding their work. The nonprofit research institute aims to feed the hungry and improve human health. One of the ways the Danforth Center improves workplace diversity is by including women leaders in its committee that reviews potential companies, Kinlaw said. 

The panel agreed with Kinlaw that women contribute to the agriculture industry with their ability to listen to different voices, to collaborate and solve problems together.

“Women must be at the table to solve the problems,” Kinlaw said. “We can’t ignore half the population of the globe.”

Kinlaw and Kaplan said efforts like the forum and Wu’s documentary show women that they can be leaders, too.

One of Kaplan’s latest achievements was conducting the first biocontrol experiment at the International Space Station last year. Kaplan said the experiment showed how beneficial nematodes could potentially be used in other planets. She encouraged women to start their own companies if they’re thinking about it.

“(Being a woman founder) is not an easy place to be,” Kaplan said. “You have to believe in your vision and have a good support system.”

Wu said more work needs to be done to have more women in higher leadership positions.

“Women are climbing Mount Everest to get to where they are,” Wu said.

Ashley is a senior journalism major and film studies minor at UNL who's passionate about photography. She is currently a photographer for the Daily Nebraskan, and she enjoys curating her Spotify playlist during her free time.