Calculated, constrained, and co-opted
Lanning, Joseph William
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In the last 70 years, Green Revolution technologies, such as inorganic fertilizer and improved seed, have been promoted globally as a means to achieve higher agricultural yields, and reduce poverty and food insecurity. Using long-term ethnography, qualitative and quantitative survey data, and experimental risk games, this dissertation research investigates agricultural decision-making among rural smallholder farmers in the Ntcheu District of central Malawi, a country in the vanguard of the new African Green Revolution. The vast majority of Malawian are rural smallholders who experience chronic and seasonal food insecurity, and their decisions about whether and how to intensely use agricultural technologies are therefore important to understand. This research draws upon 16 years of continued engagement and 15 months of fieldwork with rural Malawian communities exploring the issues smallholders face. First, it explores why rural farmers facing uncertain prices for agricultural inputs, constrained market opportunities, and limited arable land, choose either to use local seed and soil amendments, or to purchase improved seed varieties and expensive inorganic fertilizer. By examining indicators at community and household scales, it demonstrates that input choices are influenced by material wealth and that intensive input use, in communities with economic, political, and social inequality, may lead to greater disparity between rural households. Next, results of a real-rewards risk experiment reveal that when facing chronic and seasonal risk, farmers demonstrate a “safety first” decision-making model that reduces their downside risk, thus they select investment options with a higher probability of obtaining low or negative returns. It further focuses on the cognitive aspects of decision-making, showing that peoples’ self-reported experiences of food insecurity are subject to response shifts that reflect changing perceptions of their own food insecurity relative to that of other members of their community across two seasons. By factoring in ecological, economic, and cognitive aspects of people’s decision-making, this dissertation illuminates the heterogeneity of smallholders’ material, social, and physical constraints, demonstrating that unequal access to the productive resources limits wide-scale or pro-poor growth through Green Revolution strategies.