by Thomas Daum, Frédéric Baudron, Ingo Grass, Matin Qaim and Regina Birner, The Conversation
Cultivating a hectare of maize is a difficult task for Precious Banda, a farmer in Zambia. It took him hundreds of hours to prepare his land before sowing and to keep it weed-free until harvest—equipped with a small hoe. He says it was backbreaking work: “I still feel it.” For several years now he has been renting a tractor, and a neighbor has been spraying herbicide for him. “Life has become so easy,” he said.
But he also noticed changes around his farm. There were few bees and—most worrying for him—little caterpillars, which used to make a delicious dish.
Precious Banda’s story is a perfect example of the situation facing millions of farmers in Africa.
Agricultural development is high on the policy agenda of African countries, as reflected in the African Union’s Agenda 2063. But while it is necessary to reduce poverty and hunger, agricultural development often clashes with biodiversity, which is declining at an alarming rate. Loss of biodiversity reduces food security by impairing ecosystem services such as pollination, nutrient cycling and maintaining water supplies. Wild food sources may also disappear.
In a new paper, we as researchers in economics, agronomy and ecology highlight the importance of biodiversity-smart agricultural strategies. With the story of Precious Banda in our minds, we argue that such strategies should pay more attention to the dynamics of agricultural labor.
Biodiversity and agricultural labor
Biodiversity is lost when agricultural land expands and when farming becomes more intensive. In Africa, 75% of agricultural growth comes from the expansion of farmland into forests and savannas. This leads to habitat loss and fragmentation. Farming greatly restricts expansion, but can make the landscape less biodiverse and often leads to the use of more chemicals such as pesticides.
The importance of biodiversity-friendly agriculture is beginning to be recognized more widely. But efforts to encourage this often neglect trade-offs with farm labor needs. We argue that neglecting these needs will undermine the success of biodiversity conservation efforts.
Farmers can reduce heavy labor by adopting technologies such as mechanization and herbicides. For example, our previous research in Zambia showed that tractors cut land preparation time from 226 to 10 hours per hectare. And in Burkina Faso, herbicides are called “mothers’ little helpers” because they reduce the work of women in the fields.
But labor-saving technologies can negatively affect biodiversity through farm expansion, farm simplification, land degradation and spillover effects. For example, in an earlier study in Benin, Kenya, Nigeria, and Mali, we found that mechanization sometimes led to the removal of trees and hedges from farms, and changed the size and shape of the land. . This has resulted in the loss of agricultural diversity and a healthy “patching” of habitats. Pesticides can harm soil life, water systems and insect populations if they are not properly controlled and managed, as is often the case.
Biodiversity enhancement technologies have the opposite problem: farmers often do not adopt them because they increase the work burden. Examples include inter-cropping (growing different crops close to each other) and planting basins (shallow indentations in the ground to provide a suitable environment for plants and to place inputs) . In Zimbabwe, a study noted that planting watersheds can be labor-intensive without consistently increasing yields.
Farmers often adopt technologies and practices that use the least labor and provide high and stable yields, but that may not be good for biodiversity conservation.
What is needed instead is biodiversity-smart technologies that enable farming with low labor, high yield and high biodiversity.
One potential solution is to adapt the machines to the size of the field—and not the other way around. The small machinery can easily maneuver around trees, fences and other landscape features important for biodiversity.
Combining smart biological solutions (such as crop rotation) and mechanical (such as precise spraying) is a way to reduce pesticide use. In our paper, we discuss several other options, too.
For example, in plantation agriculture, tree-islands can improve biodiversity without reducing yields, as a new study shows.
Biodiversity-smart technologies can reduce the cost (in terms of yield and labor) of biodiversity conservation for individual farmers. That increases the likelihood of adoption. If conservation has higher costs than benefits, financial compensation may also be necessary. This can be, for example, in the form of certification schemes or payments for ecosystem services.
Farm-level solutions must be accompanied by landscape-level efforts. This can be done through careful land use planning and monitoring to preserve biodiversity hotspots and keep habitats connected. Our case study from Ethiopia shows that multi-functional landscapes can be planned to “work for biodiversity and people.”
We argue that biodiversity-smart agricultural development requires a change in policy making and research and development. Conservation ecologists should pay more attention to economic and social sustainability. Without addressing labor issues, conservation efforts are unlikely to succeed. At the same time, agricultural scientists must accept many goals beyond yield.
Our paper shows that technological, agronomic and institutional innovations for biodiversity-smart agriculture exist. But more needs to be done to scale them. If successful, they can help feed a growing population, improve the livelihoods of farmers, and conserve biodiversity before it’s too late.
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Citation: Technology can improve agriculture in Africa, but it can also threaten biodiversity. How to balance the two (2023, July 18) retrieved 18 July 2023 from https://phys.org/news/2023-07-technology-boost-farming-africa-threaten.html
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