Research theme 3: Trade-offs

Understanding the trade-offs (and synergies) between agricultural development, the environment and socioeconomics


About the theme

The aim of this research theme is to generate information, guidance and tools that will enable policy makers, planners and investors to better understand and manage trade-offs between social, economic and environmental objectives of agricultural development.

A trade-off exists where an intervention designed to achieve a positive change in one socioeconomic or environmental outcome inevitably leads to negative change in another. In the Sentinel context a ‘business as usual’ scenario tends to see increased agricultural production at the expense of the conservation of natural habitats and their associated biodiversity and ecosystem services. In some situations, increased agricultural production may also have negative impacts on the wellbeing of smallholder farmers. Research Theme 3 seeks to understand and address this issue of trade-offs.

Although the interaction between socioeconomic and environmental goals at a national scale tends to be largely competition (i.e. trade-offs) we should not overlook synergy, which is the situation where interventions that increase system performance against one goal also increase performance against another. A good example is agroforestry that can increase crop yields as well as sequester carbon and protect water catchments. Research Theme 3 will explore synergies as well as trade-offs.


Our research questions

The broad questions we will focus on under this theme include:

  • What are the key trade-offs between food production and reducing deforestation and loss of biodiversity under existing government agricultural policies and strategies, and under alternative pathways linked to different scenarios?
  • To what extent and in what ways are land-use planning and/or land tenure/security contributing to managing trade-offs between food production and reducing deforestation?
  • How do institutional and governance arrangements constrain/enable dissemination and use of information for better management of food production/forest conservation trade-offs?
  • What are the political economy barriers to more joined-up policy and planning related to these trade-offs?


Our methods

Identifying and understanding key trade-offs: Using trade-off characterisation, mapping and scoping methods, we will analyse policy and institutions and land use planning processes, and impacts emerging from the analysis of Research Theme 2 (understanding the impacts of agricultural expansion), to identify and characterise the key trade-offs that are likely to be most important for public policy/planning to address.

For in-depth analysis of trade-offs between specific competing objectives, we will explore the biophysical relationship at an aggregate (national) level, and how this depends on a set of defined parameters. We will hold stakeholder workshops to explore stakeholders’ interests in different outcomes and differences between and within various groups of stakeholders. We will then explore a range of options for better management of the trade-offs. This process will identify specific research questions for years 3 and 4 of the project and increase awareness, understanding and interest of all key stakeholders on the supply side (researchers) and the demand side (policy makers/planners).

In parallel, we will identify relevant existing datasets for trade-off analysis (drawing on work from Research Themes 1 and 2), and identify methods for spatially-explicit trade-off analysis, which will take into account spatial variation of key input variables such as soil quality, weather, market access, etc.

Opportunities for, and constraints to, better management of key trade-offs: We will use policy analysis to identify disconnects within and between sector policies and strategies that may be attributable to unrecognised, underestimated or sub-optimally managed trade-offs.

Using a force-field analysis method, we will analyse technical, management, governance and social, cultural and political barriers to better management of key trade-offs. We will then use political economy analysis to conduct a more in-depth analysis of the most significant barriers identified.

To analyse opportunities for better management of trade-offs, we will build upon previous work that identified enabling conditions for better trade-off management. This will explore a wide range of options with particular emphasis on two tools/instruments that are being widely promoted for management of land use trade-offs, notably land-use planning at different levels (local to national); and social and environmental safeguards that define minimum acceptable outcomes.

Information, guidance and tools for better management of trade-offs: We will review the literature to identify promising guidance and tools for awareness raising, communication, and learning around trade-offs including conventional tools and more creative tools such as gaming. In parallel, a process of consultation with key research users using key informant interviews will take place to better characterise their needs for information and tools.


Climate change had a devastating impact on agriculture in the Mount Kenya region, Kenya. Interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity work is essential to tackle complex issues (Photo: CIAT/Neil Palmer via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)
Talking transdisciplinarity

How do we really achieve impact in our work?

Career Opportunity: IIED Agricultural Expansion Consultant

IIED is seeking a research consultant to work with us on research into drivers of agricultural expansion in sub-Saharan Africa.

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