The Dilemma of Agricultural Intensification​ in Africa

The world population is projected to reach about 9.7 billion by the year 2050 and about two thirds of this predicted growth in population will take place in Africa. The exponential growth in the world population means more people need to be fed, clothed and housed. These needs place a high expectation on the world’s farmers and resources. But there is more. We want farmers to deliver adequate agricultural products at affordable prices despite rising production costs and increasingly degraded natural resources.

We want them to do more, with less, all under the increasing challenges and risks posed by climate change.

The most popular government and organizational response to the “wicked problems” in food systems is the pursuit of policies focused on increasing productivity and farming intensity over space and time, a concept often called agricultural intensification. Simply put, agricultural intensification means leveraging use of tools, techniques, and inputs, to increase the amount of food or biomass produced from a given amount of land. Most intensification has industrialized the land with widespread use of inputs including mined fertilizers, and synthetic biocides. From the start of the green revolution and to this day, most agricultural intensification regards the increase in short-term crop YIELD as the holy grail of success, the most important indicator of agricultural development. For too long, the detrimental effects to broader ecosystem service provisioning have been ignored. Many studies have now documented how intensification practices like plant monocultures, high levels of fertilization, and broad-spectrum insecticide use have degraded various components of biodiversity and the health of wildlife and farm workers.

One of the best examples of agricultural intensification is the green revolution of the 1960s. The revolution paved the way for the monocropping system to become the cultivation norm at a global level. When asked about the environmental impacts of the system, the proponents posit that intensifying agriculture is also the key to saving forests and other natural ecosystems from invasion by farmers. Logically, if the ultimate goal of agricultural intensification is to produce more food on fewer acres and thereby feed the world population, then its achievement should spare land for nature and other social and environmental services. But, is this really true?

On the contrary, experience from previous agricultural intensification efforts around the world indicates that agricultural intensification was not generally accompanied by a decline in cropland area. Increased yields of staple food crops do not spare the land. Rather, it stimulates increased planting of other non-food crops and biofuels also using intensive systems. I like the way Fred Pearce put it….”farmers don’t clear forests to feed the world; they clear forests to make money”.

At national level, most countries don’t pursue agricultural intensification with the desire to feed their own population. A clear example is Indonesia where only a fraction of the palm oil grown on the country’s former forests is for domestic use. Similarly, in Brazil, rather than a quest for food sovereignty, it was the desire to become the world’s biggest agricultural exporter that drove the assault on the Amazon witnessed in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.


Seeing both the promise of more food, and the consequences of ecosystem service loss, there is an ongoing debate of whether agricultural intensification is the best pathway for the much-needed agricultural transformation in Africa. Should there be a rethink of how we go about Africa’s agricultural transformation agenda that ensures food security for the continent’s teeming population while safeguarding the health of the land and the people?

Given its shortcomings, it is important to critically examine the ongoing call for African countries to pursue agricultural intensification as the best pathway for her agricultural transformation. No doubt, there is a need for increased productivity and efficiency at many levels within African agricultural systems. However, we need to be cautious when it comes to deployment of agricultural intensification policies in Africa. And here is why. Unlike other places, Africa cannot afford to overlook the unintended negative environmental and social impacts of agricultural intensification.

Many countries in Africa are some of the most vulnerable to negative impacts of climate change on agricultural activities. The sub-Saharan Africa has experienced more frequent and more intense climate extremes over the past decades hitting the most vulnerable the hardest, and contributing to food insecurity, population displacement and stress on water resources. A case in point is the shrinking of Lake Chad. The lake that was once ranked as the world’s sixth largest inland water body in the 1960s has shrunk by more than 90% due to climate change, increased population, and unplanned irrigation.

The aftermath is economic marginalization that provides a breeding ground for recruitment by terrorist groups as social values and moral authority evaporate. We have all read about how drought, desertification and scarcity of resources have led to heightened conflicts between crop farmers and cattle herders in Nigeria. Unintended social and environmental impacts of agricultural policies go beyond food production in Africa. Sometimes, they could be responsible for direct loss of thousands (if not millions) of lives.

It is also worth noting that more than 60 percent of the population of sub-Saharan Africa is smallholder farmers. Adoption of agricultural systems that carry heavy social and environment impacts may therefore cause even more extreme results in Africa. The repercussions of ecosystem service loss are different when the motivating force for agriculture is food security vs. economic opportunity. When the primary pursuit is financial, if ecosystem services are lost the consequences can be painful. But industry can retreat, potentially even allowing the ecosystem some time to heal, while capital moves to other pursuits. On the contrary when intensification is undertaken for food production, but leads to loss of ecosystem services, the result can be famine and social destruction. The land tenure and the community-based living system in most African countries call for a widespread sustainable farming system that is climate smart, in tune with environmental conditions, and promotes social equity. Agricultural transformation in Africa can’t be all about yield increase; it needs to take immediate and present consideration of resource constraints in water, soil, biodiversity and land.

Africa desperately needs agricultural transformation. However, the transformation must be driven by the four goals of sustainable agriculture to:

  1. Satisfy human food, feed, and fiber needs, and contribute to biofuel needs.
  2. Enhance environmental quality and the resource base.
  3. Sustain the economic viability of agriculture.
  4. Enhance the quality of life for farmers, farm workers, and society as a whole.

Agricultural development in Africa must consider sustainability to be a primary goal, not an afterthought. African agricultural transformation must not mimic the extractive industrial model as seen in most of the western world. Rather, it needs to be driven by ecology-based farming approaches that create a positive impact on natural, social and human capital of the continent.



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