Sustainable intensification in jeopardy: Transdisciplinary evidence from Malawi

September 1, 2022 - Author: J. Burke William, Sieglinde S. Snapp, Brad G. Peter, Thom S. Jayne

Burke, W. J., Snapp, S. S., Peter, B. G., & Jayne, T. S. (2022). Sustainable intensification in jeopardy: Transdisciplinary evidence from Malawi. Science of the Total Environment, 837, 155758.


In Africa, achieving sustainable agricultural intensification—increasing agricultural output without deleterious environmental impacts or converting more land for cultivation—will depend greatly on the actions of smallholder farmers and the policies that influence them. Whatever the future holds, the vast majority of farmers right now are small. Using multiple lines of evidence across disciplines, we examine trends in productivity of land and fertilizers in Malawi. Unfortunately, our effort uncovers disturbing trends that indicate intensification and sustainability are at risk. Two time-series datasets of satellite-based vegetative indices show a generally flat but highly variable trend in the productivity of agricultural land with epochs of steep decline. This is notably despite substantial (and successful) government effort to promote fertilizer use. We also compile evidence from several studies over three decades that use field-level data from farmers and suggest substantial declining maize yield response to fertilizer over time. These trends are consistent with soil degradation, the disappearance of fallow land and minimal investment in rehabilitation practices in densely populated areas, putting agricultural productivity in jeopardy. These signs of the harmful impacts that narrow approaches to productivity improvement may be having in Malawi are an early warning sign to policy makers in Malawi and around the continent that a more holistic and nuanced strategy is necessary for sustainable intensification in agriculture.



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