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Explaining the impact of agroecology on farm-level transitions to food security in Malawi

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How does agroecology influence household food security? While previous studies have found that adopting agroecological practices can have a positive effect on smallholder household food security, there is limited understanding of how this transition occurs. This mixed-methods study draws on data from an ongoing agroecology project in Malawi to engage with debates about if and how an agricultural paradigm shift can contribute to smallholder food security. Researchers interviewed 60 farmer participants of an agroecology intervention to examine the mechanisms by which recent adoption of crop diversification and soil management practices had altered household access to a stable, adequate and diverse diet. Results from mixed-effects regression analysis of a case-controlled panel survey (n = 537) corroborated respondents’ reports that participating in agroecological trainings and farmer discussion groups had increased food security. Interviews indicated that, consistent with food security pathways literature, farmers were using direct-consumption and agricultural income pathways to improve food security. Furthermore, respondents were following food security pathways based on altering their production relations so as to regain control over their farming inputs, namely seed, fertilizer, land, and labor. In addition, we found that the agroecological approaches reinforced and widened existing social support practices such as food and seed sharing, fundamental to long-term community food security. The results presented in this paper provide evidence of the effectiveness of multifaceted participatory agroecological interventions to support transitions to food security based on environmentally sustainable farming practices.

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This paper is based on data from the long-term work of the Soils, Food and Healthy Communities organization in Malawi who received funding from the Daniel and Nina Carasso Foundation. These sponsors have had no role in the study design, data analysis and interpretation, writing the report, and the decision to submit the report for publication. This research was also funded by Engaged Cornell and the Bradfield Research Grant and a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

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Correspondence to Sidney Madsen.

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Ethics approval

The study was approved for human subjects by the corresponding researcher’s university IRB (# 1607006471A003).

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Oral informed consent was given by all study participants.

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Oral informed consent was given by all study participants.

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The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


Appendix 1 Crop diversity in rainfed and dry season plots

Fig. 4
figure 4

Percentage of surveyed farmers (n=430) cultivating each crop in their dry season (dimba) plot at endline

Fig. 5
figure 5

Percentage of surveyed farmers (n=430) cultivating field crop species at endline

Appendix 2 Agroecological practices and their usage by control/intervention groups

Table 2 Agroecological practices in which intervention farmers were trained
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figure 6

Boxplot of number of agroecological practices used at baseline and endline by treatment (n = 355) and control households (n = 75)

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figure 7

Percentage of intervention farmers (n = 355) cultivating field crop before and after intervention

Fig. 8
figure 8

Boxplot of number of field crops cultivated at baseline and endline by intervention (n = 355) and control households (n = 75)

Appendix 3 Additional analysis of indicators relevant to household food security

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figure 9

Boxplot of reported maize yield kg/ha by intervention (n = 355) and control groups (n = 75) in northern and central districts for 2018 harvest

Table 3 Comparison of averages between intervention and control groups for key indicators
Table 4 Pairwise correlations between food security, agricultural practices, and socio-economic variables
Table 5 Ordered logistic regression of severe food insecurity (HFIAP), agricultural practices, and socio-economic variables
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figure 10

Conceptual diagram of production relations-based agroecological pathways to food security

Table 6 Comparison of proportion of responses from control and intervention group farmers to HFIAS indicator questions

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Madsen, S., Bezner Kerr, R., LaDue, N. et al. Explaining the impact of agroecology on farm-level transitions to food security in Malawi. Food Sec. 13, 933–954 (2021).

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