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Does adopting legume-based cropping practices improve the food security of small-scale farm households? Panel survey evidence from Zambia

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This study provides empirical evidence on whether and how integrating legumes into production systems affects measures of small-scale farm households’ food availability and access. We used nationally representative household panel survey data from Zambia to estimate the differential effects on cereal-growing households of incorporating grain legumes into their farms via cereal-legume intercropping, cereal-legume rotation, and other means (such as legume monocropping). Specifically, we tested the hypotheses that with all else equal, cereal-growing small-scale farm households that integrate grain legumes into their production systems have: (1) more availability of food as measured by total production of calories and protein; (2) more income from crop production or sales; and (3) increased food access. Results suggest that cereal-legume rotation was associated with statistically significant increases in production of calories and protein by a household as well as their gross value of crop sales; it may also improve their food access. In contrast, we found little evidence of statistically significant effects of cereal-legume intercropping and other forms of legume production on household food availability and access in Zambia.

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  1. Pulses are a subgroup of legumes that are harvested for dry grain. Examples include navy bean, kidney bean, chickpea and cowpea.

  2. In this paper, we use the term “legume-based cropping practices” to refer, collectively, to all of these various means by which households incorporate grain legumes into their agricultural production. We use “other legume production” to refer to the practices other than cereal-legume rotation and cereal-legume intercropping. The grain legumes commonly grown in Zambia and included in this study were groundnut, soybean, mixed bean, cowpea, velvet bean, and bambara nut. The cereals considered for cereal-legume rotation and intercropping were maize, sorghum, and millets. Rice is also grown by Zambian smallholders but it is not conducive to cereal-legume intercropping or rotation, because the aforementioned legumes generally do not grow well in flooded paddy fields.

  3. Food security exists when “all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life” (FAO 1996). The four commonly recognized dimensions of food security are food availability, access, utilization, and stability.

  4. Note that the links between household income, household food security, and individual dietary outcomes are complex. While we expect higher incomes to lead to an increase in the quantity and quality of foods accessed by the household, particularly in a resource-constrained context like Zambia, other considerations, such as the relative prices of nutrient-dense food items and intra-household allocation of that income, among many others, will also influence what people eat.

  5. We do not have data on women’s empowerment and expected the women’s empowerment pathway to be less important in the current study given that we are analyzing the effects of adoption of legume-based cropping practices as opposed to, for example, the effects of an intervention aimed at promoting these practices.

  6. Note, however, that these authors defined crop rotation very broadly and not just as rotations involving legumes.

  7. Data on crop production include fertilizer use and costs, area planted, and quantities harvested by plot and crop for all crops, as well as plot-level information on the use of intercropping and the main crop that was planted on the plot in the previous agricultural year. Insufficient information is captured in the RALS data to net out important crop production costs other than fertilizer (e.g., labor, seed and crop protectants). We therefore focus on gross (not net) value of crop production and related measures in the analysis.

  8. In Zambia, finger millet is commonly grown in areas with average or high rainfall, such as Northern, Muchinga and Luapula Provinces, whereas pearl millet is common in lower rainfall areas such as the Western and Southern Provinces.

  9. For cereal-legume intercropping, this is measured as the ha planted to legumes on cereal-legume intercropped fields.

  10. These 2SLS models are estimated using the 2015 RALS data for HDDS, and the pooled 2012 and 2015 RALS data for the other outcome variables. We explored estimating FE-instrumental variables models for the latter but were unable to identify sufficiently strong instruments.

  11. The SEA is the most disaggregated geographic unit in the dataset and is typically a cluster of two to four villages that contains a total of 150 to 200 households.

  12. The hungry season in Zambia is November – April.

  13. The FRA is Zambia’s maize marketing board/strategic food reserve agency, which buys maize at its depots from farmers at a pan-territorial price that often exceeds the market price in maize surplus production areas.


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This study was supported by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) funded Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Collaborative Research on Grain Legumes under the terms of Cooperative Agreement No. EDH-A-00-07-00005-00, the USAID-funded Food Security Policy Innovation Lab under the contract number AID-OAA-L-13-00001 (Zambian buy-in), the USAID Mission to Zambia through grant number 611-A-00-11-00001-00, the US Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA-NIFA) and Michigan AgBioResearch through project number MICL02501. The opinions expressed in this paper are those of the authors alone and should not be attributed to USAID, the Legume Innovation Lab, the Food Security Policy Innovation Lab, USDA-NIFA, or Michigan AgBioResearch. A working paper version of this article was published in 2016 as a Research Paper for the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Security Policy.

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Correspondence to Christine M. Sauer.

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Sauer, C.M., Mason, N.M., Maredia, M.K. et al. Does adopting legume-based cropping practices improve the food security of small-scale farm households? Panel survey evidence from Zambia. Food Sec. 10, 1463–1478 (2018).

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