Cash crop agriculture: how can we develop production while avoiding impacts on biodiversity?


Cash crops (cotton, sugar cane, rice, etc.), mainly intended for export, play a major role in the geographical, geopolitical, social and economic construction of territories. They have enabled millions of small farmers and traders to benefit from world trade. However, their impact on biodiversity is one of the most significant. 

Cash crops are intended for sale in order to generate a regular income for farmers. They can therefore be distinguished from food crops, which are intended for personal consumption. All BIODEV2030 countries have identified agriculture as a priority economic sector contributing to the loss of biodiversity and the country’s development. Benin (cotton), Burkina Faso (cotton), Ethiopia (coffee), Guinea, Guyana (rice and sugarcane), Mozambique (soybeans and sugarcane), Senegal (groundnuts) and Uganda.


Cash crops stakeholders and economic issues

Cash crops are the mainstay of agriculture in many countries and contribute significantly to tax revenues and GDP in many countries around the world. In Benin, for example, the cotton sector accounts for 80% of the country’s export revenue and represents 13% of GDP. Thus, some states have sought to promote cash crops. This is the case in Uganda, which – through reforms of its agricultural policy – has sought to develop commercial production. In human terms, cash crops remain one of the main sources of income, particularly in rural areas. It is estimated that in Senegal, groundnut cultivation provides a living for 1/3 of the population, directly or indirectly.

There is a wide variety of actors with stakes in cash crops: from input suppliers, to end distributors, to producers, cooperatives and transporters. The State and research organisations also play a key role in the development of the farms.

Because of their geographical location and growth (e.g: +6.4% on average in Uganda) cash crops put great pressure on biodiversity.

In recent years, some cash crops have begun to move towards more sustainable practices, particularly to meet international demand.


62 billion USD

of agricultural products exported by Africa in 2017

Source : Bouët, Antoine and Odjo, Sunday P. (Eds.). 2019. Africa agriculture trade monitor 2019. Washington, DC: International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).


Agricultural practices have a major impact on biodiversity. Chemical inputs are widely used to control pests and increase yields. They contribute to the pollution of ecosystems and deplete soils, which leads to desertification. Furthermore, the clearing of plots by fire can cause fires. If not controlled, these fires directly affect buffer zones or protected areas.

The degradation of soil fertility combined with the high demand linked to population growth is forcing farmers to increase the size of their farms. This leads to a reduction in the duration of fallow land, which is favourable to biodiversity. Moreover, this phenomenon also puts pressure on many ecosystems: forests, mangroves, drylands, etc. The opening up of new fields through land clearing is the cause of the reduction in forest cover and the fragmentation of the habitats of many species.

Combined with the constraints linked to the impacts of climate change, these effects will further contribute to the degradation of ecosystems and biodiversity.


of the world’s endangered species are mainly due to agriculture

Source : UNEP. Our global food system is the primary driver of biodiversity loss [en ligne]. Disponible sur : (Page visited on 25/07/2022)


Cash crop agriculture has negative impacts on biodiversity due to:

  1. The change in land use to the detriment of many ecosystems, particularly forest ecosystems. Increased production does not have to be synonymous with the destruction and fragmentation of habitats. The ecological impact of destroyed ecosystems must be taken into account.

2. The use of chemical inputs leading to pollution, soil depletion and erosion of the surrounding biodiversity. The consequences range from the degradation of soil fertility (and therefore lower yields) to the desertification of the environment. Their use must be strictly controlled and reduced.


  • Reduce the quantity of chemical inputs used and control their use
  • Implement a zero deforestation approach
  • Promote organic or certified crops
  • Develop agroecology and agroforestry to improve soil conditions
  • Promote the development of farmer networks for sharing experiences, knowledge and services (at local, regional and even national levels) 

Sources :

  • Auroi, C., & Maurer, J. 1998. Tradition et modernisation des économies rurales : Asie-Afrique-Amérique latine : Mélanges en l’honneur de Gilbert Étienne. Graduate Institute Publications. doi :10.4000/books.iheid.1570 ;
  • Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Forestry. Les politiques agricoles à travers le monde, Le Sénégal [online]. Available at: Sénégal | Ministry of Agriculture and Food Sovereignty. (Page visited on 25/07/2022)
  • FAO. Sustainable food and agriculture. Land use in agriculture by the numbers [online]. Available at: |Sustainable Food and Agriculture|FAO. (Page visited on 25/07/2022)
  • Fromageot A., Ndembou S., Courade Georges. Les cultures de rente concurrencent les cultures vivrières. In: Courade Georges (ed.). L’Afrique des idées reçues. Paris: Belin, 2006, p. 288-294. (Mappemonde).
  • UNEP. Our global food system is the primary driver of biodiversity loss [en ligne]. Available at: (Page visited on 25/07/2022)

Photo credits: AFD