Trade-offs and synergies between yield, labor, profit, and risk in Malawian maize-based cropping systems

Land degradation, population growth, and chronic poverty in Eastern and Southern Africa challenge the sustainability of livelihoods for smallholder farmers. These farmers often manage soils depleted of nutrients, apply limited amounts of mineral fertilizer, and take decisions about their cropping systems that involve multiple trade-offs. The rotation of cereals with legumes bears agronomic and ecological merit; however, the socio-economic implications of the cereal-legume rotation require a deeper understanding. This study explores the yield, labor, profit, and risk implications of different legume and mineral fertilizer practices in maize-based cropping systems in central Malawi. Our method involves coupling crop modeling and an agricultural household survey with a socio-economic analysis. We use a process-based cropping systems model to simulate the yield effects of integrating legumes into maize monocultures and applying mineral fertilizer over multiple seasons. We combine the simulated yields with socio-economic data from an agricultural household survey to calculate indicators of cropping-system performance. Our results show that a maize-groundnut rotation increases average economic profits by 75% compared with maize monoculture that uses more mineral fertilizer than in the rotation. The maize-groundnut rotation increases the stability of profits, reduces the likelihood of negative profits, and increases risk-adjusted profits. In contrast, the maize-groundnut rotation has a 54% lower average caloric yield and uses more labor than the maize monoculture with mineral fertilization. By comparing labor requirements with labor supply at the household scale, we show for the first time that the additional labor requirements of the maize-groundnut rotation can increase the likelihood of experiencing a labor shortage, if this rotation is undertaken by farm households in central Malawi. We demonstrate that risk and labor factors can be important when examining trade-offs among alternative cropping systems.