Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format

Integrated Article


Doctor of Philosophy




Luginaah Isaac

2nd Supervisor

Bezner Kerr Rachel


Cornell University



Globally, hunger has been on the rise, with concentration among smallholder farmers who paradoxically constitute the majority of the world’s food-producing population. In sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) where smallholder agriculture dominates, the persistent failure of the agricultural system to address the food needs of the population has been linked to the interactive effect of multiple drivers, including climate change, environmental degradation, social inequalities, political instability and the increased alignment of smallholder farming towards an input-intensive model. Over the past few decades, most governments in SSA have resorted to an input-intensive production approach for improving smallholder agriculture, which emphasizes the use of synthetic inputs. In Malawi and other countries where this input-intensive model has been widely promoted, there is evidence of its counterproductive effects including the shrinking of the hitherto diversified food baskets of traditional farming communities, environmental degradation, erosion of traditional knowledge systems and breakdown of the beneficial social relations that characterize traditional smallholder agriculture. Amid these ecological and social contradictions, the Food and Agriculture Organization called for countries to align their agricultural sectors towards approaches that are ecologically sustainable and socially just. Agroecology is an approach to agriculture that focuses on addressing the ecological and social contradictions of the current food system. At the farm-level, agroecology emphasizes improved nutrient flows and energy use efficiency through ecologically friendly practices such as composting, agroforestry and legume intercropping as opposed to the use of synthetic inputs. Agroecology also has a social justice dimension which focuses on improving the social relations of production between farmers at the local level while addressing social inequalities at different scales in the food system. Despite gaining traction in the past few decades, there is little empirical evidence on the impact of agroecology in smallholder farming communities.

Using a two-wave survey data from a five-year agroecology intervention in Malawi (n=914 farming households, comprising 514 treatment households and 400 control households) and the metabolic rift as an overarching theoretical lens, this dissertation examined the impact of agroecology on farmer social capital, sustainable land management and nutrition. Difference-in-Difference (DID), mediation analysis and regression techniques were employed in data analysis.

Overall, findings from the DID analysis demonstrate a positive treatment effect of the agroecological intervention on social capital, production diversity and dietary diversity. Findings from the logistic regression analysis also show that farming households that received the agroecology intervention were significantly more likely to adopt crop residue recycling, composting, legume integration, mulching, agroforestry and integration of vetiver grass compared to households in the control group after controlling for demographic, socioeconomic and plot-level factors.

These findings demonstrate the multifunctional role of agroecology in smallholder farming contexts. Theoretically, the dissertation also illuminates contemporary understanding of the metabolic rift in the current global food system and agroecology’s potential to address key aspects of the social, ecological and individual dimensions of this rift. In the context of the ongoing pursuit of the Sustainable Development Goals, these findings have practical implications for agricultural policy in Malawi and similar contexts in the Global South.

Summary for Lay Audience

Although food is a basic human need, globally, about 1 in 9 people do not have access to enough food. The paradox is that smallholder farmers who constitute the majority of the world’s food-producing population are the most food insecure, with concentration in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) and Asia. The increasing failure of smallholder farming systems in SSA to address hunger is linked to the intensifying biophysical and social challenges resulting partly from the increased inclination of smallholder agriculture towards an input-intensive production model. In Malawi, where the government has promoted the use of synthetic inputs as a pathway to addressing food insecurity over the past few decades, there is evidence that the approach does not work with poor smallholder farmers who struggle to meet the financial burden associated with purchasing these inputs. The increased reliance of smallholder farming systems on synthetic inputs also produces ecological and social problems including environmental degradation, erosion of traditional agricultural knowledge systems and crops, the narrowing of local food systems and the social relations on which smallholder agriculture is founded. Agroecology, which emphasizes the use of organic soil management approaches and pays attention to social inequalities in the food system, is a promising approach for addressing these ecological and social rifts. This dissertation examined the impact of a participatory agroecological intervention to improve household nutrition, sustainable land management and social capital in smallholder farming communities in Malawi.

Overall, our findings show that agroecology can improve farmer social capital, sustainable land management, household dietary diversity and production diversity. Compared to control households that did not receive the agroecological intervention, those that received the intervention had higher mean social capital endowments, dietary diversity and production diversity scores, and were more likely to adopt diverse sustainable land management practices at the endline. These findings provide evidence of the multifunctional role of agroecology in smallholder farming contexts, particularly how it can be deployed to improve household nutrition, farmer interconnectnedness and environmental sustainability. In Malawi for instance, where an input-intensive model has been promoted through the Farm Input Subsidy Program (FISP) as a pathway for improving smallholder agriculture, there is evidence that the approach benefits only a small fraction of smallholder farmers given that the core poor are unable to afford subsidized modern inputs. The government’s focus on promoting maize cultivation under the FISP has also contributed to the narrowing of the food basket and household diets. Thus, agroecology, which draws on locally available resources to generate farming practices that poor smallholder farmers can use to improve and diversify production, can be a pro-poor approach for improving nutrition and environmental sustainablity. The findings also suggest that the participatory farmer-to-farmer knowledge sharing approach used in the MAFFA intervention can be leveraged to improve agricultural extension and the uptake of SLM technologies in SSA. Amid the broader pursuit of sustainable development under the Global Sustainability Goals, these findings further provide salient policy pointers for improving smallholder agriculture in similar resource-poor contexts in the Global South.

Available for download on Saturday, December 31, 2022