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Agriculture in Marginal Lands
The term ‘marginal’ was originally used under the umbrella of economic theorizing to describe an area under given conditions where cost-effective production is not remunerated. Since then, different definitions describing the concept of marginality and marginal environments have emerged, highlighting the complex nature of marginality and how various unfavorable conditions disadvantage individuals and communities living in these areas. In the context of the agricultural economy, the term “margins of cultivation” is used to describe economically marginal agricultural lands where revenue from optimal production just equals (or is lower than, in some instances) the costs of production, leading to zero (negative) profit or economic loss. To capture this specific economic context, FAO and UNEP have classified land supporting a yield of only up to 40 percent of its productivity potential as marginal. Marginal lands are also identified as areas where “cost-effective production is not possible under given conditions, cultivation techniques, agriculture policies, and macro-economic and legal settings”. In this context, economically marginal land can be thought of as land that would not be cultivated at current output and input prices without the availability of government support programs. Marginal lands are mostly abandoned, as they are disadvantaged due to factors such as changing commodity markets, international competition, or the demographics of land owners and farm operators.
1. Marginality in the Context of Agriculture
2. Geographical and Regional Identification of Marginal Lands
The literature offers different statistics on the extent and prevalence of marginal areas, as different studies employ different methods, assumptions, and criteria to estimate the extent of global marginal lands. Marginal lands account for about 36 percent of global agricultural land (1.3 billion ha), and support roughly one-third of the world’s population . Worldwatch Institute  estimate that the extent of marginal lands ranges anywhere between 100 million and 1 billion hectares. The estimated global area of abandoned agriculture is 385–472 million hectares . Among the first studies to determine the extent of marginal lands and the distribution of the rural poor on less-favored marginal lands globally was the comprehensive study carried out by the Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), covering 105 developing countries across four regions. According to the CGIAR/TAC report , “favored” agricultural lands accounted for only 10.7 percent of agricultural area in the developing world compared with 24% of marginal agricultural lands.
|VS||S||MS||mS||vmS||NS||Total||Potential (VS + S + MS)||Potential (mS+ vmS)|
|Total land (in million ha)||1315||2187||993||1111||1627||6061||13,294||4495||2738|
|In agricultural use (1999/2001)||442||616||201||120||104||75||1558||1260||224|
|of which rainfed||381||516||166||93||84||43||1283||1063||177|
|of which irrigated||61||100||35||27||20||32||275||197||47|
3. Research and Development (R&D) and Policy Outlook
Research Engagement and Priorities
Research and development (R&D) and investments in areas with high agricultural potential cannot be neglected because these areas still provide much of the food needed to keep prices low, and to feed growing livestock and urban populations . However, with the predicted trends in the population, extended R&D and greater public investment in some low-potential areas could offer a win-win strategy for addressing productivity and poverty problems; thus, investments in R&D in marginal areas may actually give higher aggregate social returns to a nation than additional investments in high-potential and prime areas .
Outlook for Future Policies
Sustaining agriculture and livelihoods in agriculturally marginal areas requires a significant shift in the current policy environment away from soothing short-term to more comprehensive policies that favor long-term viable investments to effectively respond to the growing food demand in the decades to come. The well-established link between poverty and environment  requires long-term food–poverty–environment-focused development policies to address deep-rooted poverty and create an enabling environment for the extreme poor to become part of mainstream economies, while restoring the natural resource base in the presence of growing threats posed by climate change. Future policies must evolve around a framework that is all-inclusive but context-specific. An integrated and holistic policy approach is necessary to advocate for collective action, engaging research institutions, policymakers, farmers and consumers, and other stakeholders to unlock the untapped potential of marginal lands. Deploying policy instruments targeting individual aspects of farming in isolation implies leaving too many “loose ends” and therefore is less likely to achieve the strategic developmental goals. Hence, an all-inclusive, integrated, and participatory policy approach is indispensable to engage all parties to align synergies and join forces in targeting productivity enhancement, whilst improving the fragile resource base in the face of severe climate change.
Ideally, geographical areas that are categorized as extremely marginal areas should be prioritized for future research and development, followed by other areas that are moderately marginal. Such areas will require immediate research and development support to effectively contribute to achieving SDG One and Two. Future policy interventions will vary in scope depending on the severity and type of factors leading to marginality within these hotspots; that is, context-specific approaches and R&D actions will need to be designed to target dimensions peculiar to the individual marginality hotspot. Recent developments in land use and agricultural policies show significant progress towards sustaining agriculture production in marginal agriculture .
Public investments to promote more sustainable development pathways are warranted in marginal areas on both poverty and environmental grounds. The design and scope of potential interventions largely and essentially depends on the dimension of marginality being targeted and the local or regional economic context. Strategic options may vary from encouraging additional out-migration, promoting income diversification into nonfarm activities, increasing recurrent expenditure on safety net programs, supporting more intensive pathways of agricultural development, and introducing payment schemes for environmental services. Although non-agricultural options are perhaps more economically viable in transforming and industrializing economies with dynamic non-agricultural sectors, they are less viable in poor agrarian communities with stagnant economies .
Future interventions aiming to target agriculture in marginal areas need to take into account the local comparative advantages and the heterogenous nature of marginal environments . Strategies for less-favored areas are likely to be more effective if they are linked to the development pathways that have comparative advantages in particular circumstances. For instance, small-scale water-saving irrigation technologies are likely to yield the highest returns with suitable soil conditions, since these can enable intensified and high-value crop production. On the contrary, road development is likely to have the highest returns in densely populated areas with good agricultural potential but limited market access, by enabling the marketing of high-value commodities and inputs. Investments in education and training are vital in low-potential areas with limited market access where immigration is likely to be an important element of people’s livelihood strategies for the foreseeable future .
Tradeoffs between economic growth and poverty reduction objectives are more likely to arise in public investment decisions. Thus, another dimension of potential future policies is finding the right balance between income-generating and supportive activities (i.e., food security) and land use (e.g., land use for farming vs. urbanization). Since poverty and food security goals are strongly interlinked with environmental goals, future policy interventions need to identify and address where tradeoffs arise to ensure resources in both prime and marginal areas are sustainably used in achieving SDGs. Policy attempts to address individual goals in isolation will not only fail to target the rural poor, but will also put pressure on the natural resource base and lead to further dependence on exploiting environmental resources.
From a technological standpoint, major breakthroughs in productivity-enhancing agricultural technologies will be essential to reverse resource degradation and put marginal lands into optimal use. The Green Revolution may actually have created new sources of food insecurity in marginal areas by targeting high-potential areas and a handful of high-value and input-intensive crops grown there, mainly wheat, rice, and maize . Policies for marginal environments must encourage the use of ecological processes instead of relying entirely on external inputs for crop production. Technologies that help reduce risks (by increasing tolerance to drought, pests, or frost, for example) and conserve and improve resources may be more effective than those that simply promote high yields in response to high levels of inputs . Future technologies should account for and must be suited to the high degree of diversity in biophysical and socioeconomic conditions typical of marginal areas. The scope of future technological innovations must be different in several ways, so to be able to directly target the remaining poor (i.e., they should be cost-effective, productive, and sustainable).
The process of innovation and technological development for marginal agricultural environments must be based on a synergy between researchers and the marginalized farmers as the end users. Resource-poor farmers should not only be passive recipients of improved technologies but must play an active part in developing and adapting technological solutions to meet their own particular circumstances . The proposed strategies for technological development should therefore be participatory and demand-driven, stimulating and building upon farmer innovations that are fit to local circumstances.
The importance of land tenure programs is reflected in the Sustainable Development Goals. As land holding size is substantially low in most parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and other agriculturally marginal areas, and will continue to decrease due to land fragmentation and land-use planning, governance and tenure policies are becoming very critical. Insecure land tenure rights and weak governance drive more marginalized and vulnerable people into being evicted from their farms, with women farmers being particularly at risk. As a result, rural unemployment is likely on the rise. Tenure reforms generate positive welfare effects for resource poor farmers . Improving secure access to land affects how people decide to use land resources and whether they invest in potential land improvement activities. More secure and equitable access to land can help empower disadvantaged groups (particularly women and marginalized populations) and ensure employment of the poor to their lands. Farm policies intended for marginal agriculture must therefore reinforce endogenous property rights systems to secure ownership rights over land and other resources.
Initiatives targeted at policy makers, researchers, and agribusinesses need to be aligned with capacity-development actions. They should seek to integrate knowledge generation with knowledge sharing in a manner that can effectively inform, and be informed by, action . Farm households’ decision-making in the context of risk and resilience challenges is often constrained by a lack of information on weather and market conditions. Many farmers in remotely marginal areas rely on an informal knowledge of local climates and weather patterns that has been acquired over decades or even centuries. The challenge posed for these households is that much of this knowledge base will be effectively destroyed as it is rendered irrelevant under the new climatology . Policies for marginal areas should make efforts to encourage restoring knowledge base and risk-coping mechanisms including weather forecasts, early warning systems, extension systems, and drought monitoring and forecast models, especially for reaching disadvantaged and indigenous populations.
The impact of market reform policies in marginal areas has been mixed and often detrimental to the poor . Since the development potential of marginal regions is often constrained by poor infrastructure and market access, the public sector must create an enabling and supportive policy environment to induce and incentivize investments in agricultural R&D, rural infrastructure, and market access, to aid in transforming local subsistence production into market-led commercial production systems. Farmers, especially the smallholders, are poorly endowed with productive assets and liquidity constraints limit their access to modern inputs. Government policies at the national level must therefore invest to remedy market distortions, enhance the functions of local markets, and ensure access to long-term and affordable credit.
Coordinated public and private investments in the agriculture and food sectors must be a key dimension in future policies for agricultural and livelihood development in marginal areas. Attracting long-term private sector involvement will not only increase investments but will also promote resilience and efficiency in agri-food systems. The private sector could play an increasing role in creating “shared value” as an innovative business approach in which the long-term value and allocation of investments is shared between society and shareholders . This means any involvement by the private sector in making business decisions on future plans should recognize social value, to ensure the needs and participation of the marginalized poor are reflected in business models undertaken by private sectors. The Nestle’s dairy n India and Pakistan are a good example of creating such shared values, as they have invested to strengthen local dairy businesses, but also provided benefits to the wider society through infrastructure development and educational programs on production management, nutrition, and other aspects .
Given the increasing threat of climate change, the adaptation of climate-smart agricultural and regenerative agricultural practices must be placed on the top of the policy agenda for marginal areas to transform and reorient agricultural systems to effectively support development and ensure resilience against climate effects. Inter-disciplinary R&D efforts will need to increasingly recognize the need to understand resilience against climate change and the sustainability of low-carbon economies. Poverty is evidently linked to environments in the context of marginal areas leading to the unbreakable poverty–environment traps . Policies for restoring marginal areas must not be only poverty-focused but must also involve recommended conservation practices. The adoption of resource conservation technologies like zero tillage, residue application, permaculture, an appropriate use of fertilizer mixes, salt-tolerant varieties of crop, and promoting bio-saline agriculture practices will further enhance the potential of marginal lands to sequester carbon. In addition, the reclamation and improved management of degraded and salt-affected lands present great opportunity in marginal areas where salinity already happens to be affecting a large share of lands and will continue to spread at an increasing rate. Policy actions aimed at promoting resilience against climate change must address cross-cutting issues in all sectors. Tackling only the causes and impacts of environmental stresses facing agriculture production is a fragmented action that provides a partial solution only in the short run. In managing climate change, it is important to avoid considering its impacts in isolation from other processes of change, such as urbanization, land use, agricultural production, water resource management, and the use of other natural resources.
The entry is from 10.3390/su13168692
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