Increased farming rarely aids wellbeing, environment

Harvests okra on his plot of land in Bidi Bidi camp
A farmer harvests okra on his plot of land in Bidi Bidi camp Copyright: Panos

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  • Researched assessed whether agricultural intensification has double benefits
  • They found that only 17 per cent of cases benefit wellbeing and the environment
  • African countries should ensure agricultural intensification has more benefits

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[NAIROBI] Agricultural intensification rarely leads to simultaneous positive outcomes for ecosystem services such as biodiversity and human wellbeing, researchers say.
According to the researchers, high priority is given to agricultural intensification — activities that aim to increase either the productivity or profitability of a given tract of agricultural land — because of the likelihood that such activities benefit ecosystems and human wellbeing.
But the researchers are saying in a study that it is unclear whether these twin benefits could be achieved across different regions, hence their motivation to analyse how agricultural intensification affects both the environment and human wellbeing in low- and middle-income countries.
The study published in Nature Sustainability journal last month (14 June), involved analysis of 60 case studies from 53 peer-reviewed papers, representing countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The studies were published from 1997 to 2017, with 15 of the 60 case studies focusing on African countries: Ethiopia, Madagascar, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Uganda and Zambia.
Researchers analysed wellbeing using indicators such as income, education, health and food security whereas ecosystem services were assessed with indicators including biodiversity, cultural heritage and water purification.

“Change is often induced or imposed for more vulnerable population groups who often lack sufficient money or security of land tenure.”

Laura Vang Rasmussen, University of British Columbia

“Only 17 per cent of our cases were categorised as having overall win–win outcomes [for ecosystems and wellbeing],” the researchers note in the journal.
For example, whereas only 12 per cent of cases representing biodiversity ecosystems had positive outcomes, 45 per cent of the cases had negative outcomes.
Distribution of evidence of the effects of agricultural intensification on ecosystem services and wellbeing.
 Distribution of evidence of the effects of agricultural intensification
Source:  Laura Vang Rasmussen and others
According to Laura Vang Rasmussen, a co-author of the study and a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Forest and Conservation Sciences at the University of British Columbia, Canada, although agricultural intensification is often considered the backbone of food security, the reality is that it is often undermining conditions including biodiversity, soil formation and water regulation that may be critical for supporting long-term and stable food production,
Intensification of coffee production in Ethiopia, driven by investors and state enterprises, for example, contributes to declining access to and availability of several provisioning ecosystem services, negatively affecting the wellbeing of local minority groups who are more reliant on these services for their livelihoods.

Rasmussen adds that it is important for African countries to look at how intensification is introduced, for example whether it is initiated by farmers or forced upon them.

“Change is often induced or imposed for more vulnerable population groups who often lack sufficient money or security of land tenure to make these changes work,” she explains.

Rasmussen explains that smallholders in the cases studied often struggle to move from subsistence to commercial farming, and the challenges involved are not currently well reflected in many intensification strategies.

Phil Dobie, a senior fellow at Kenya-headquartered World Agroforestry Centre, applauds the study and says that it sets out to investigate success in achieving “sustainable intensification”, which is a poorly defined term.

It is a term that was negotiated during the run-up to the establishment of the Sustainable Development Goals, and represents an aspiration but does not provide a means, Dobie adds

“It is possible that the aspiration of achieving agricultural intensification with simultaneous environmental protection and improved human wellbeing will only be achieved … within economies that provide the necessary means of improving human wellbeing,” explains Dobie, adding that relying on efforts in the agricultural sector alone will make it impossible to achieve agricultural intensification.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.


Laura Vang Rasmussen and others Social-ecological outcomes of agricultural Intensification (Nature Sustainability, 14 June 2018).