Project Details


Food security is one of the world’s greatest challenges. The current food system shows an entanglement across the globe which means that local farmers reliant on subsistence agriculture no longer operate in isolation of larger-scale processes within the global economy or the changing biophysical system of the planet. The persistently high number of undernourished people, volatile food prices, increasing population, expected land scarcity and negative impacts of climate change on food production all contribute to a sense of urgency that future food supply in Africa will be threatened. The current global response is increasing food production by improving the productivity of smallholders in developing countries. In recent years this has been achieved through input subsidy programs aiming at agricultural intensification and to some extent Large Scale Land Acquisitions (LSLA).
This thesis investigates the challenges posed to achieving food security for all, particularly by national policies supporting LSLA and agricultural intensification programs by evaluating the local food security and environmental implications across African countries. The thesis consists of four papers framed within changes to the global food system and analyzed through the telecoupling framework. Each of the papers used separate methods, from network analysis (Paper I), GIS and probablilistic assessment (Paper II), remote sensing and residual trend analysis (Paper III) and modeling of farming systems with LPJ-GUESS (Paper IV).
Paper I assesses the evolution of global LSLA by identifying three different phases (2000-2007,2008-2010,2011-2015) related to global economic changes. It shows how African lands were consistently targeted by foreign investments based on the assumption that they could improve food security in the continent and foster economic development.
Paper II demonstrates that LSLA in Africa are in reality mostly targeting export markets and seldom tackle the food security needs of the countries where they occur. At the same time, they risk increasing land pressures and deforestation rates and fueling conflicts, further destabilizing food security.
Paper III shows that between 2000 and 2018, only 15% of croplands in West Africa witnessed significant trends in terms of productivity. These trends were mostly attributed to climatic factors in the Sahel, but increasingly to changes in cropping practices (inputs, irrigation and land rehabilitation) throughout the region.
Assuming the widespread adoption of intensification measures (elimination of fallow periods and higher fertilizer use) in North Africa, Paper IV shows that rainfed wheat yields could increase by up to 25%, but would be accompanied by dramatically higher rates of nitrogen pollution with up to a six-fold increase in leaching and seven-fold increase in N2O emissions depending on the agro-ecological zone.
Finally, the thesis concludes with reflections on the dangers of prioritizing productivist policies, which I argue are unable to tackle the more pressing food accessibility issues across Africa and benefiting transnational corporations and national elites at the expense of the environment and the livelihoods of smallholder farmers. It also points to agroecology as a potential alternative for sustainably improving food security in the continent.

Layman's description

Food security is one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century. Between the expected negative impacts of climate change on agriculture, and the predicted increase of the global population, there are concerns over our ability to provide suficient, safe and nutitious food to all people at all times. Today, undernutrition is a reality for about 820 million people across the globe, mostly living in developing countries. In recent years, global development agendas have promoted agricultural modernization in these countries based on the assumption that increasing agricultural productivity would provide more food to the countries’ populations and foster economic development at the same time. In this thesis I explore two examples of agricultural modernization in Africa; large scale land acquisitions and agricultural intensification and analyze their impacts on local food security and the environement in four different papers.

The four papers in the thesis use various methods to identify the drivers, direct and undesired impacts of land acquisitions and cropland intensification across different regions in Africa. Paper I evaluates the evolution of global land acquisitions using network analysis. It attributes changes between the three identified phases of land acquisitions to global socio-economic drivers based on the dominant investors, targeted regions and the advertized purpose of the land deals. Throughout time, the largest amount of acquired land was in Africa and was aimed at agricultural production. Paper II then looks at the details of the agricultural deals in Africa and estimates whether they are capable of addressing the identified food security needs of the 38 countries where they occur. By clearing forest areas and targeting the most productive agricultural lands in the continent, these deals often time are meant for producing high value cash crops destined for export. As such they reduce the area used by local farmers to produce food and might lead to production declines rather than gains in at least 27 countries. Paper III relates recent changes in cropland production to climatic changes in West Africa as observed from satellites. It shows that across the region recent changes in rainfall and temperature have had less of an impact than changes to farming practices on crop productivity. Paper IV explores the potential impacts of increasing fertilizer use as an intensification measure on yields and envrionmental degradation in North Africa using the LPJ-GUESS model. It shows that yield gains as well as associated increases of the capacity of croplands to sequester carbon are often met with larger nitrogen pollution.

In conclusion, I argue that current efforts to increase food production either through higher input farming systems or large scale acquisitions might be trading short term economic and yield gains for longer term land degradation. They might also be unsuccessful in improving food security in the many locations where the problem is lack of access to food rather than its availability. I recommend that these strategies should be reevaluated to account for the full range of impacts on the most vulnerable peoples’ livelihoods and environmental pollution in the long term. This might be the only way to achieve sustainable development goals for all.
Effective start/end date2015/09/012020/06/30

UKÄ subject classification

  • Physical Geography


  • Agriculture
  • Land grabbing
  • Sustainabiliy
  • Network Analysis
  • Earth Observation
  • Crop Modeling