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Limitations to crop diversification for enhancing the resilience of rain-fed subsistence agriculture to drought


  • M. E. Gilbert
  • N. M. Holbrook


Diversification of agricultural systems is a standard suggestion for increasing the resilience of rain-fed subsistence farming to drought. However, grain crops share many physiological characteristics, potentially forming a plant functional type (PFT), a term ecologists apply to groups of species that respond in functionally similar ways to environmental variation. Here we test whether grain crops are a PFT, and whether diversification between grain crops, to other crops or livestock that feed on natural plants results in sufficient variation in water-use physiology to form a diversified agricultural portfolio. To this end, we simulated the response of crops and natural PFT’s to rainfall variation using a simple plant growth model. We then predicted subsistence farmer allocation with a safety-first economic analysis and compared these to observed allocations at 78 sites across a rainfall gradient in South Africa. We demonstrate that there are shifts from crop to livestock farming with aridity, and that this is correlated with the extant natural PFT’s. That is, as the simulated probability of crop failure diverges from that of the natural vegetation, there is a shift to livestock farming. Diversifying within grain crops would lead to little increase in resilience due to limited physiological variation – an indication that grain crops are one PFT – while other crops had some potential for greater diversification advantages, and livestock feeding on natural plants the greatest. Thus, a plant functional type approach is vital in understanding the developmental economics of subsistence farmer diversification with the goal of increasing resilience to drought.

Suggested Citation

  • M. E. Gilbert & N. M. Holbrook, 2011. "Limitations to crop diversification for enhancing the resilience of rain-fed subsistence agriculture to drought," CID Working Papers 228, Center for International Development at Harvard University.
  • Handle: RePEc:cid:wpfacu:228

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Perret, Sylvain R., 2002. "Livelihood Strategies In Rural Transkei (Eastern Cape Province): How Does Wool Production Fit In?," Working Papers 18046, University of Pretoria, Department of Agricultural Economics, Extension and Rural Development.
    2. Felix Schläpfer & Michael Tucker & Irmi Seidl, 2002. "Returns from Hay Cultivation in Fertilized Low Diversity and Non-Fertilized High Diversity Grassland," Environmental & Resource Economics, Springer;European Association of Environmental and Resource Economists, vol. 21(1), pages 89-100, January.
    3. Fafchamps, Marcel & Udry, Christopher & Czukas, Katherine, 1998. "Drought and saving in West Africa: are livestock a buffer stock?," Journal of Development Economics, Elsevier, vol. 55(2), pages 273-305, April.
    4. Johann Kirsten & Robert Townsend & Chris Gibson, 1998. "Determining the contribution of agricultural production to household nutritional status in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa," Development Southern Africa, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 15(4), pages 573-587.
    5. M. Cocks & L. Bangay & K. Wiersum & A. Dold, 2006. "Seeing the wood for the trees: the role of woody resources for the construction of gender specific household cultural artefacts in non-traditional communities in the Eastern Cape, South Africa," Environment, Development and Sustainability: A Multidisciplinary Approach to the Theory and Practice of Sustainable Development, Springer, vol. 8(4), pages 519-533, November.
    6. John Hoddinott, 2006. "Shocks and their consequences across and within households in Rural Zimbabwe," Journal of Development Studies, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 42(2), pages 301-321.
    7. M. Falkenmark & J. Rockström & L. Karlberg, 2009. "Present and future water requirements for feeding humanity," Food Security: The Science, Sociology and Economics of Food Production and Access to Food, Springer;The International Society for Plant Pathology, vol. 1(1), pages 59-69, February.
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    More about this item


    Diversification; Plant Functional Types; Safety-First Portfolio; South Africa;

    JEL classification:

    • Q15 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - Agriculture - - - Land Ownership and Tenure; Land Reform; Land Use; Irrigation; Agriculture and Environment
    • Q51 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - Environmental Economics - - - Valuation of Environmental Effects
    • Q56 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - Environmental Economics - - - Environment and Development; Environment and Trade; Sustainability; Environmental Accounts and Accounting; Environmental Equity; Population Growth
    • Q57 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - Environmental Economics - - - Ecological Economics
    • R14 - Urban, Rural, Regional, Real Estate, and Transportation Economics - - General Regional Economics - - - Land Use Patterns


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