Research Papers

Knowledge affects soil ability of smallholder farmers in marginal areas with A. Mantino, G. Ragaglini, M. Dell'Acqua, C. Fadda, M.E. Pè and A. Nuvolari

Submitted to Agronomy for Sustainable Development

Soil fertility is key to sustainable intensification of agriculture and food security in sub-Saharan Africa. However, when soil nutrients are not adequately managed, smallholder farming practices slowly erodes soils to almost inert systems. This case study contributes to the understanding of such failures in marginal areas. We integrate agronomic and social sciences approaches to explore links between smallholder households’ farming knowledge and soil fertility in an ethnopedological perspective. We interview 280 smallholder households in two areas of the Ethiopian highlands, while collecting measures of 11 soil parameters at their main field. By analyzing soil compositions at tested households, we identify a novel measure of soil ability, which provides an effective empirical characterization of the soil managing capacity of a household. Regression analysis is used to evaluate effects of household knowledge on the soil ability derived from laboratory analysis. Results highlight the complexity of knowledge transmission in low-input remote areas. We are able to disentangle a home learning and a social learning dimension of the household knowledge and appraise how they can result in virtuous and vicious cycles of soil ability. We show that higher soil ability is associated with farmers relying to a great extent on farming knowledge acquired within the household, as a result of practices slowly elaborated over the years. Conversely, lower soil ability is linked to households valuing substantially farming knowledge acquired through neighbors and social gatherings. The present study is the first to formulate the concept of soil ability and to investigate the effects of the presence and the types of farming knowledge on the soil ability of smallholder farmers in remote areas. We show that farming knowledge has a primary role on soil fertility and we advise its consideration in agricultural development policies.

Rain does not fall on one roof alone. Farmers' management strategies to cope with precipitation variability among rainfed marginal systems with A. Mantino, G. Ragaglini, C. Fadda, M.E. Pè and A. Nuvolari

Under submission to World Development

In a changing climate, the awareness of precipitation variability is key to food security of smallholder farmers in rainfed marginal systems. In agricultural areas dependent on rainfall phenomena, households able to interpret correctly short-term precipitation deviations and extremes do retain an advantage in terms of resilience. Despite the communitarian nature of these rural societies, we know little about how collective processes influence rainfall risk perception and households’ awareness. In our study we join data from agronomic surveys, daily rainfall estimates and socioeconomic surveys to explore links between the growth of households’ rainfall awareness and social learning dynamics. We build a repeated cross-section dataset, interviewing 280 smallholder households in the Ethiopian highlands in the spring of 2013 and 2019, while computing the mean, the standard deviation and the maximum of three rainfall parameters during the crop growing seasons. By analysing the growth of the household’s precipitation risk perception and the growth rate of the three rainfall parameters, we identify a measure of farmer’s awareness to short-term rainfall variability, which shows high heterogeneity among neighbouring households. Regressions reveal the role of collective learning, which withstand controls for farmers’ age, gender and income. Instrumenting the idir, an informal institution present in Ethiopian societies, we investigate further the collective formation of rainfall awareness. Our findings suggest that collective mechanisms of learning should be considered in mitigation and risk reduction programs. Our work adds to the growing body of literature screening socioeconomic determinants of risk perception in natural hazards environment; it contributes to the debate on reducing households’ climate vulnerability, advising the consideration of social learning mechanisms in rural policy development.

agriLOVE: an agent-based evolutionary model of the agricultural sector with explicit environmental boundaries with M. Coronese, F. Lamperti and A. Roventini

Working paper available upon request

This work present a novel agent-based model of land use and agriculture. The model focuses on the interactions between technological change and food production, in a spatially explicit economy populated by boundedly rational farmers which interacts with the environment and among themselves, and compete to fulfill an increasing demand for food. It represents a flexible tool to investigate the impact of innovation diffusion, patterns of imitation, behavioral and geographical factors on food production and land use. We firstly show the model to be able to replicate key stylized facts of the agricultural sector, and then extensively explore it across several scenarios featuring different institutional and behavioral settings. Finally, we employ the model in two distinct applications on soil degradation and climate impacts, showing a poor ability to cope with inter-temporal trade-offs arising from soil over-exploitation, hysteresis and non-trivial spatial propagation effects after weather-related shocks.

Is green the new black? An ABM approach on transition toward sustainable agriculture with M. Coronese, F. Lamperti and A. Roventini

Working paper available upon request

Since the last decades economic and population growth increasingly pressured the Earth system. Land management is essential to ensure sustainability of future food security, but it needs to cope with rising global environmental risks and constraints. In this work we extend the agriLOVE agent-based model of an agricultural sector to investigate interactions between different agricultural regimes in an economy exposed to explicit environmental boundaries. In particular, we study the ability of the system to favor a transition to a sustainable regime when prolonged cultivation with conventional techniques yields a slowdown in productivity dynamics, due to soil degradation. We investigate transition dynamics under several behavioral, environmental and policy scenarios. Our results point to strong path-dependece and show how the agricultural sector has a very limited capacity to ease transition towards a sustainable regime if not supported by appropriate policies. Intuitively, the transition is negatively affected by the velocity and timing of the phenomenon of soil-erosion. The presence of incomplete information has an ambiguous role: being endowed with more information paradoxically lower transition likelihood, although it speeds up the velocity of the transition itself. We further show the existence of trade-offs between distinct spatial configuration, particularly between different degrees of sustainable farms clusterization. Finally, we demonstrate how subsidies to sustainable farming are relevant to avoid lock-ins of conventional farming, but they are only marginally effective in fostering transition. Taxes on conventional farming can help the diffusion of sustainable practices, but conditional on being severe and targeted at R&D activities.

How informal share of agricultural sector is shaping agrobiodiversity among smallholder farmers in marginal areas: the case of idir in Ethiopia

Working paper under preparation