New publications: Understanding changes in farming systems to propose adapted solutions

Researchers identify national policies, climate and soil fertility changes, population increase, and urban expansion as the major drivers of farming systems change in the Hawassa area of Ethiopia.

By Frédéric Baudron and Natasha Nagarajan

Farming systems are moving targets. Agricultural Research and Development (R&D) must understand where they come from and where they are going to offer solutions that are adapted. This is one of the main objectives of the Trajectories and Trade-offs for Intensification of Cereal-based systems (ATTIC), project funded by the CGIAR Research Program on Maize (MAIZE) and implemented by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and the Farming System Ecology group at Wageningen University & Research.

recent study led by Yodit Kebede — who obtained her PhD last year under the ATTIC project — examined the drivers of change affecting smallholder farming in southern Ethiopia, farmer’s responses to these changes, and consequences for agricultural landscapes.

As in many parts of the developing world, small farms in southern Ethiopia have become smaller. Population increase and urban expansion have been major drivers of this change. Population has been increasing over 3% annually in Ethiopia, the second most populated country in Africa. Grazing areas and forests were converted to cropland, putting stress on the availability of livestock feed and fuelwood.

Farmers responded to these changes through three broad trajectories: diversification — mixed cropping and intercropping, particularly for the smallest farms —, specialization — often in high-value but non-food crops — and consolidation — maintenance or increase of farm area. Each of these trajectories has its own specific R&D needs, although farms following a consolidation trajectory are often favored by R&D programs. The same three trajectories can be identified in many rural areas where rural transformation has not taken place yet, in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world.

The loss of grassland and forest produced a landscape more susceptible to erosion and loss of soil fertility. However, all outcomes from these landscape changes may not be negative. Another study conducted by the same authors in the same study area demonstrated that an increasingly fragmented agricultural landscape may lead to increased pest control by natural enemies.

While aiming to mitigate against negative outcomes from landscape changes — for example, land degradation — policies should be careful not to inadvertently reduce some of the positive outcomes of these changes, such as increased pest control. As concluded by the study, “a better understanding of interlinkages and tradeoffs among ecosystem services and the spatial scales at which the services are generated, used, and interact is needed in order to successfully inform future land use policies”.

Read the full study:
Drivers, farmers’ responses and landscape consequences of smallholder farming systems changes in southern Ethiopia

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