Human Ecology

, Volume 23, Issue 3, pp 291–334 | Cite as

Threats to sustainability in African agriculture: Searching for appropriate paradigms

  • Abe Goldman


This paper attempts to identify the main threats to and sources of sustainability in African agricultural systems by examining cases of unsustainability and resilience at various levels. Current concepts of sustainable agriculture are based mainly on the experiences and norms of western industrial nations and may not be appropriate to sub-Saharan Africa and other developing regions. The things we want to sustain comprise a hierarchy of attributes, components, and systems at increasing scales, and it is important to examine the dynamics of sustainability at each significant level as well as the impacts of events at one level on others. Cases of crop declines and of collapses of larger systems indicate that extreme perturbations, both biophysical and social, are more important as causes of unsustainability than suggested in the literature, while the significance of resource degradation or of overuse of technological inputs have been overemphasized. Survey data from Kenya and Nigeria show that the main causes of crop disappearances have been major disease or pest outbreaks, followed by changes in crop preferences. Fertility and land use stresses have been only a tertiary factor. Sources of resilience that have buffered households and larger systems from the impacts of these range from farmers' strategies of crop and income diversification and searches for resistant cultivars to interventions by national and international bodies. Numerous population and large-scale system collapses have also occurred over the past century in Africa, almost all caused by extreme social and/or biophysical perturbations. There is no evidence that land degradation or land use pressure has played a significant role in these. Increased land use pressure has led to the disappearance or alteration of many prior practices, though farmers have generally adapted to these. Resource management systems have also declined due to outmigration as regions undergo a transition from remote and relatively closed systems to more open systems. These may call for a greater rather than lower use of modern technology to enhance the income earning potential of agricultural production.

Key words

agriculture sustainability Africa crop pests crop diseases 


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Copyright information

© Plenum Publishing Corporation 1995

Authors and Affiliations

  • Abe Goldman
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of GeographyUniversity of FloridaGainesville

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