Food crops: producing more, producing better and preserving biodiversity


Food crop agriculture is mainly oriented towards self-consumption and subsistence economy. It is largely self-consumed by farmers and the local population. It contributes to the reduction of food-related and financial vulnerability of households and to the erosion of biodiversity.

Food crop (or subsistence) agriculture aims to ensure that households are self-sufficient when it comes to their food needs. This distinguishes it from cash crop agriculture, which is intended for the agri-food industry and for export. All BIODEV2030 countries have identified agriculture as a priority economic sector contributing to the loss of biodiversity and the country’s development. 3 of the 16 BIODEV2030 countries have specifically chosen subsistence crops: Cameroon, Madagascar and Uganda.



African agriculture faces a dilemma. On the one hand, it has to produce more to meet growing food needs. The population in Uganda, for example, is expected to double by 2050, reaching nearly 90 million. On the other hand, it has to produce better while ensuring that biodiversity is preserved.

This sector, which is dominated by food-producing agriculture, employs more than half of the continent’s workforce (more than 80% of the active population in Madagascar). It also provides food for a rural population that is growing by more than 3% per year. Mostly composed of small farms of less than 2 hectares, it uses few inputs, irrigation and agricultural technologies. This makes it vulnerable to climatic hazards.

One of the challenges is to meet local demand without resorting to imports. Increasing production is therefore crucial. However, yields are low and are not increasing. Gains in recent years have been achieved largely through the continued expansion of cultivated areas. Agriculture’s contribution to food security and economic development will come largely from increasing the efficiency of agricultural production and improving the entire agricultural value chain (access to agricultural technologies, development of storage infrastructure, distribution, processing, etc.).


Share of the active population working in the agricultural sector

Source : Agriculture strategies. Agricultural investment in Africa: low levels… numerous opportunities. [online] Available at: (page accessed on 16/08/2022)


Pressures on biodiversity are numerous and will increase along with agricultural production (increase in yields or agricultural areas). All environments are impacted.

The increase in agricultural area leads to a change in land use. The natural habitats of many species are disappearing or are fragmented. Forests are the first to be impacted by land clearing, with all the consequences this has for forest ecosystems, which are rich in biodiversity. On the other hand, certain practices such as clearing plots by fire, in addition to destroying soil fauna, can cause uncontrolled fires in buffer zones or protected areas.

Soil quality is deteriorating due to the overexploitation of land, monoculture plot management or (low) use of unapproved chemical inputs. This leads to loss of soil fertility, changes in soil properties (e.g. water infiltration) and soil pollution. These effects are exacerbated by the reduction of traditional fallow periods between two crop cycles.

3 millions hectares

Area of natural habitat converted each year in Africa, mainly due to agriculture

Source : UNEP. The State of Africa’s Biodiversity, a mid-term review of progress towards the AICHI targets. 2016. 112p.

Subsistence agriculture has negative impacts on biodiversity due to:

  1. Land use change to the detriment of various ecosystems, especially forest ecosystems. Increased production does not have to be synonymous with the destruction and fragmentation of habitats. The ecological impact of food crops be taken into account.

2. Unsustainable agricultural practices: overexploitation of the soil due to certain practices such as the reduction of fallow periods, or the cultivation of monoculture plots, leads to a decline in soil fertility. The reduction in fallow periods has a particular impact on numerous species (especially pollinators) that take refuge there. However, these rest periods are agronomic assets, which break the cycle of parasites and improve the quality of the plots.

Ways in which food crop stakeholders can get involved:

  • Train farmers in sustainable land management
  • Prohibit the conversion of areas with high biodiversity value into agricultural land.
  • Make concerted investments in agricultural infrastructure (farm equipment, warehouses, distribution, processing)
  • Prohibit the use of unregistered chemical inputs, ensure the rational use of registered ones and promote the use of biofertilisers
  • Establish an effective monitoring system for national or territorial biodiversity directives
  • Promote agroecology and the landscape approach
    • Increase the proportion of food crop producers who use good agroecological practices
    • Promote good agroecological practices to consumers

Sources :

Crédits photo : AFD/ Cyril le Tourneur d’Ison