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Development actors, including the African Union, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa and bilateral donors, promote a technology-driven sustainable intensification of agriculture as a way to feed a growing world population and reduce rural poverty. A broader view of smallholder agriculture in the context of rural livelihoods suggests that technological solutions alone are unlikely to meet these goals. Analysis of the solution space for agricultural interventions in a high potential area of southern Mali shows that intensification can lift most farm households out of extreme poverty and guarantee their food self-sufficiency. However, the most effective options do not fit the usual definition of sustainable intensification, increasing production per unit land while protecting the natural environment. Cropland expansion combined with the good yields seen in on-station experiments can nearly eliminate extreme poverty, while the biggest impact may come from taking advantage of peak seasonal prices for crops like groundnut. Other profitable alternatives can include meat production with small ruminants or sales of milk from cows. However, off-farm employment opportunities like gold mining outperform currently attainable agricultural options in terms of profitability. Options for rural households should fit within the households’ socio-ecological niches and respond to their priorities in order to be successful. Given the relatively low impact of (sustainable) intensification technologies alone, a rethinking of the role of agricultural research in development is needed in order to align interventions with farmer priorities and meet development goals.

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