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Cultivating one hectare of maize used to be an arduous task for Precious Banda, a farmer in Zambia. It would take her hundreds of hours to prepare her land before sowing and to keep it weed-free until harvest – equipped with nothing but a small hoe. She says it was backbreaking work: “I can still feel it.” For a few years now she has hired a tractor, and a neighbour sprays herbicides for her. “Life has become so easy,” she says. But she has also noticed changes around her farm. There are fewer bees and – most worrying for her – fewer caterpillars, which used to make a delightful dish. Precious Banda’s story is a perfect example of the situation millions of African farmers face.

Agricultural development is high on the policy agenda of African countries, as seen in the Agenda 2063 of the African Union. But while it’s needed to reduce poverty and hunger, agricultural development often clashes with biodiversity, which is declining at an alarming rate. Losing biodiversity could reduce food security by undermining ecosystem services like pollination, nutrient cycling and maintenance of water supplies. Wild food sources could also be lost. In a new paper, we as researchers in economics, agronomy and ecology emphasise the importance of biodiversity-smart agricultural strategies. With Precious Banda’s story in our minds, we argue that such strategies need to pay much more attention to agricultural labour dynamics.

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