Agricultural intensification rarely leads to simultaneous benefits for ecosystem services such as biodiversity and human wellbeing, researchers say. In the study “Social-ecological outcomes of agricultural Intensification” published in the Nature Sustainability journal, which analysed 60 case studies from countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, they found that fewer than 20 per cent of cases had benefits across both these outcomes.
Agricultural intensification — activities that aim to increase either the productivity or profitability of agricultural land — tends to get high priority as a strategy for sustainable food production. But how to achieve positive outcomes in different regions is unclear, according to the authors.
This knowledge gap was their motivation to analyse the twin impacts of agricultural intensification in low- and middle-income countries.
The findings are based on 53 peer-reviewed papers 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.
The researcher team analysed wellbeing using indicators such as income, education, health and food security. Ecosystem services were assessed with indicators including biodiversity, cultural heritage and water purification.
“Only 17 per cent of our cases were categorised as having overall win–win outcomes for ecosystems and wellbeing,” the authors write in the journal.
In the case of biodiversity, 45 per cent had negative outcomes whereas only 12 per cent of cases had positive outcomes.
A case from Amazonia shows a more complex variant in which intensification of swidden cultivation of cassava leads to (1) reduced fallow periods, (2) rapid escalation of weeding requirements, (3) reduced farming capacity of households who cannot afford labour or other inputs and (4) concentration of production on smaller plots, resulting in the lose–lose outcomes of lower food production and lower incomes.
According to Laura Vang Rasmussen, lead author of the study and postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Forest and Conservation Sciences of the University of British Columbia in Canada, although agricultural intensification is often considered the backbone of food security, the reality is that it often undermines conditions for sustainability such as biodiversity, soil formation and water regulation that may be critical for supporting stable food production over the long term.
In Ethiopia, for example, intensified coffee production driven by investors and state enterprises contributes to declining access to, and availability of ecosystem services — and this has negative impacts on the wellbeing of local minority groups who rely on these services for their livelihoods.
According to Rasmussen, African countries need to look at how intensification is introduced — whether or not it is initiated by farmers themselves. “Change is often induced or imposed on more vulnerable population groups who often lack sufficient money or security of land tenure to make these changes work,” she says.
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.
References: Laura Vang Rasmussen et al.: Social-ecological outcomes of agricultural Intensification (Nature Sustainability, 14 June 2018).