New frontiers in Africa: Can agricultural intensification be balanced with environmental and social concerns?
Africa is currently the place of interest for increasing agricultural production to meet local food security but also to meet the increasing demand for global commodities, including bioenergy. Yields and improved inputs use have stagnated at low levels throughout Sub-Saharan Africa for several decades, matched by high levels of poverty and under nutrition. In the last 10 years, several governments have attempted to kick start productivity gains through subsidy programs to smallholder farmers; private investments in lands and markets are also underway. Several issues have emerged: How and where do subsidies work? Can smallholders produce crops of sufficient quality and quantity for commercial markets? Does food and nutritional security suffer with the transition from food to cash/bioenergy crops? Will this agricultural intensification lead to deforestation for new lands as well as deterioration of ecosystem services on current croplands? Will this intensification result in land aggregation and further economic marginalization of smallholder farmers? Methods and results from on-going programs and projects provide insight into some of these issues and ways forward for sustainable agricultural intensification.
Despite criticisms from academics, development agencies and donors alike, the Malawi government subsidy program has increased and maintained maize yields over the past 8 years – even in so-called drought years. This has reportedly led to increased food security until this past year when the subsidy program was cut back drastically. The Millennium Villages project also instituted a short-term subsidy program with associated decreases in food insecurity and under nutrition. Agricultural intensification in the Millennium Villages was accompanied by environmental interventions focusing on tree planting within farms. Preliminary results from one site show that this intensification of agriculture did not lead to increased clearing of land and in fact resulted in increased tree cover, carbon storage and diversity and increased food security outcomes. Eliminating the inputs subsidies or replacing them with access to credit quickly led to a decrease in input use – the longer term consequences for human wellbeing and ecosystem services are still being investigated. Focusing on a transition to cash crops may lead to increased incomes but can also result in increased food insecurity at the household level. As Africa moves towards intensification, systems must be in place to monitor the multiple outcomes, in search of the balance required with production, environment and livelihoods.