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Introduction To Intercropping

by Jonathan Foley
Published: Last Updated on

Intercropping, also known as mixed cropping, is a traditional agricultural practice that involves growing two or more crops in close proximity on the same piece of land. The crops can be grown together simultaneously, or one can be planted after the other has already been established. It has been used for centuries by farmers around the world as a way to improve yield, reduce pest and disease problems, and maximize land use efficiency.

The practice of this cropping system dates back to ancient civilizations, such as the Mayans, who grew corn, beans, and squash together in a symbiotic relationship known as the “three sisters.” In Africa, it has been used for centuries, where farmers grow crops such as maize, sorghum, and millet together with legumes like beans and groundnuts. In Asia, farmers have been practicing it with rice and legumes for centuries.

It is widely practiced in developing countries, where smallholder farmers have limited resources and land. Countries like India, China, and sub-Saharan African countries rely heavily on this farming method to produce food and income for their populations.

Furthermore, it is often compared to monoculture, which is the practice of growing a single crop in a large area of land. Monoculture is the predominant agricultural practice in developed countries, where farmers use synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and machinery to maximize yields. However, monoculture can have negative impacts on soil health, biodiversity, and the environment, as well as leading to a high dependency on external inputs.

Intercropping, on the other hand, is a sustainable alternative to monoculture. By growing multiple crops together, farmers can reduce the need for synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, while improving soil health and reducing the risk of pest and disease outbreaks. It also helps to maximize land use efficiency, as farmers can grow more crops on the same piece of land.


There are many different types of intercropping systems, each with its own unique benefits and challenges. Here are a few examples:

  • Alley cropping: This involves planting rows of trees or shrubs in between rows of annual crops. The trees provide shade, reduce soil erosion, and can also be harvested for timber or fuelwood. For example, farmers in sub-Saharan Africa plant maize or cassava with leguminous trees such as Acacia, Gliricidia, and Leucaena.
  • Relay cropping: This involves planting a second crop after the first has already established. For example, farmers can plant legumes after maize, as the legumes will fix nitrogen in the soil, improving soil fertility for the next crop. In some regions of Asia, rice and mung beans are grown together using this method.
  • Cover cropping: This involves planting a non-cash crop, such as clover or rye, in between rows of cash crops. The cover crop helps to prevent soil erosion and improve soil fertility, while also providing habitat for beneficial insects. For example, farmers in Europe often use cover crops such as clover and vetch to improve soil fertility and reduce erosion.

Intercropping is a common agricultural practice in developing countries, where smallholder farmers rely on it to produce food and income. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), it is practiced on more than 10% of the world’s cultivated land, with the highest adoption rates in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.

The latest statistics show that this farming method can improve yields by up to 90% compared to monoculture, while also reducing pest and disease problems by up to 80%. It has also been shown to improve soil health, increase biodiversity, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

There is growing scientific evidence to support the use of this farming method as a sustainable agricultural practice. Studies have shown that it can improve soil health by increasing soil organic matter, improving nutrient cycling, and reducing soil erosion. It can also reduce pest and disease problems by increasing biodiversity and creating habitats for beneficial insects.


However, there are also some concerns about it. One concern is that intercropping may increase competition between crops for resources such as water and nutrients, which could lead to reduced yields. Another concern is that it may be more labor-intensive than monoculture, which could be a challenge for smallholder farmers who have limited resources and labor.


Furthermore, this farming method can increase the nutritional value of crops, as it can improve soil fertility and reduce pest and disease problems. Leguminous crops, which are often used in this cropping systems, are high in protein and can improve the nutritional value of the overall crop. In addition, it can increase the diversity of crops grown, which can provide a wider range of nutrients to consumers.


Moreover, this method requires careful crop selection and management to ensure optimal yields and soil health. Factors to consider include crop compatibility, planting density, crop rotation, and nutrient management. It may also require more frequent weeding and pest management than monoculture, as pests and diseases can spread more easily in mixed cropping systems.

In conclusion, intercropping is a sustainable agricultural practice that has been used for centuries by farmers around the world. It offers numerous benefits, including improved yields, soil health, and biodiversity. While there are some challenges associated with it, the latest scientific evidence suggests that it is a promising alternative to monoculture for smallholder farmers in developing countries. As the world faces increasing pressure to produce more food sustainably, it offers a valuable tool for achieving this goal.

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