Does smallholder maize intensification reduce deforestation? Evidence from Zambia

July 31, 2020 - Author: Johanne Pelletier, Hambulo Ngoma, Nicole M. Mason, Christopher B. Barrett

Pelletier, J., Ngoma, H., Mason, N. M., & Barrett, C. B. (2020). Does smallholder maize intensification reduce deforestation? Evidence from Zambia. Global Environmental Change, 63, 102127.


Increasing food production to meet growing demand while reducing tropical deforestation is a critical sustainability challenge. This is especially true in sub-Saharan Africa, which faces serious food insecurity issues and where smallholder farming is the main driver of forest conversion. Competing theories imply opposite predictions as to whether deforestation increases or decreases with smallholder agricultural intensification, which can improve food security by increasing crop yields per area cultivated. This research provides new empirical evidence on the association between deforestation and smallholders’ use of modern inputs, in particular inorganic fertilizer on maize and improved maize seeds, using Zambia as a case study. We analyze this association nationwide in a spatially disaggregated manner at the lowest administrative level using machine learning-based small area estimation, which makes use of detailed nationally representative surveys on smallholder farm households for 2011 and 2014, and census data to statistically predict modern inputs use country-wide for 2011, when average maize yields were 1.28 tons/ha. Then, we evaluate the association between improved maize seed and fertilizer inputs and subsequent deforestation, while controlling for key geospatial covariates. The results support the land-sparing hypothesis, finding that smallholder farmers’ use of improved maize seed is negatively associated with deforestation on non-acidic (pH ≥ 5.5) soils, an effect that is enhanced by complementary inorganic fertilizer use. Fertilizer use on its own, however, is weakly associated with increased deforestation. Sustainable intensification via use of improved seeds on adequately fertile soils and improving soil health appears compatible with reducing both deforestation and food insecurity.




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