Genuine organic agriculture is rooted in four main principles:
- ecology: both ecological systems and cycles should be supported
- health: the well-being of both flora and fauna should be sustained
- fairness: providing common and just environment and life opportunities
- care: the management of natural resources that is both precautionary and responsible for the benefit of current and future generations, as well as the environment
These four principles are directly applicable to intercropping for many reasons. For instance, intercropping supports healthy ecological systems as it is based inherently on the incorporation of multiple species or varieties into a single system with various motivations for specific pairings or groupings. In this sense, biodiversity is encouraged in two ways. The first being that it prevents one particular variety of pest from aggregating by limiting their food source and ultimately reducing the risk of excessive loss due to one specific pest. The second is that more pollinators and predatory species are present as a result of a more diverse system that provides a habitat for pollinators and predatory species. This is accomplished by the relatively simple act of diversifying the crops grown. Similar benefits can be seen in reductions in total weed biomass. Further, intercropping supports the goal of closed-system production, i.e. nutrient cycling within a system, via the use of nitrogen-fixing legumes as component crops that benefit from their symbiotic relationship with Rhizobia.
The use of these crops also organically increases the soil nitrogen content, which encourages mycorrhizal fungus development, which can also improve phosphorus, copper, zinc, and molybdenum uptake. However, it is worth mentioning that these objectives may be best realized by polyculture farms that incorporate livestock manure as legume fatigue may occur if the soil becomes overly infested with pathogens caused by the over-cultivation of legumes.
When accounting for the above-mentioned factors, it may be supposed that intercropping is best suited for organic production systems because it serves to circumvent the need for synthetic, mineral and chemical inputs, i.e. fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, that are commonplaces in conventional agriculture and restricted from use in organic agriculture. In a sense, this means that although intercropping is more closely related to historical approaches to agriculture, it is being adapted to modern circumstances that include a rising demand for organic food, increasing environmental stresses, and a growing societal awareness of food and food production processes. Concurrently, conventional agriculture is becoming increasingly cost-inefficient, both economically and environmentally speaking. This has the potential to support an agricultural transition towards organic production methods, especially if evidence substantiating assertions about the efficacy of intercropping continue to emerge. Moreover, the growing body of proof that demonstrates total system improvements in output produced by intercropped systems may help to counter the argument that organic production cannot be as productive as conventional agriculture, especially when comparing it to sole cropping systems. In turn, intercropping may enable organic production to become more competitive with conventional production and ultimately provide an opportunity for further organic market expansion through the establishment of a fairer economic playing field. Ultimately, these factors allow for the creation of more resilient food systems that provide modern day benefits that serve as the groundwork for a more sustainable future. Consequently, this element of foresight has the potential to benefit a wide variety of both human and non-human stakeholders.
- IFOAM. Principles of Organic Agriculture
- Fuchs, J.; Wilbois, K. P.; Conder, M.; Weidmann, G. (2017): Testing Peas for Legume Fatigue. NET Arable.
- Lowenfels, J. (2013). Teaming with nutrients : the organic gardener’s guide to optimizing plant nutrition. Portland, Or: Timber Press.
- Machado, S. (2009) Does intercropping have a role in modern agriculture? In Journal of Soil and Water Conservation. 64(2), pp. 55A – 57A.
- Stagnari, F., Maggio, A., Galieni, A., & Pisante, M. (2017). Multiple benefits of legumes for agriculture sustainability: an overview. Chemical and Biological Technologies in Agriculture. Springer.