Intercropping: Match Made on Field

Intercropping aims to make harmonious matches of crops on the otherwise uniformly cultivated field.

Intercropping: Match Made on Field
Intercropping: Match Made on Field
Amna Haq
February 15, 2023

A commonly reiterated concern amongst policy makers and relevant think tanks is the fact that the rate of population growth has exceeded the rate of food production; a persistent issue worldwide, especially so in Pakistan. The exponential propagation of Pakistani population along with the explosive expanse of urbanization has pressurized the agriculture sector to greatly increase food production.

In spite of the increasing demands and significant support provided, agricultural growth has slowed down from an average of more than 4% per year between 1970 and 2000 to less than 3% in recent years. This has been attributed to poorly functioning agricultural markets with excessive government intervention, as well as inefficient and poorly targeted subsidies in public spending on agriculture, discouraging the adoption of more water-efficient and high-value agriculture.

However, it is worth noting that consistent monoculture practices are also a contributing factor to the stagnant food production. 

While monoculture practices produce higher yields, their employment is a compromise in terms of biodiversity, pests and water consumption.

Monoculture or sole cropping refers to the agricultural practice of growing a single, specific crop or plant species over an agricultural land at a time, typically on an industrial scale. This agriculture technology is applicable not only for crops but farm animals too, where a piece of land or a farmer caters to the rearing of a single species of livestock, such as cattle or poultry only. 

Sole cropping has been traditionally adopted because it maximizes utilization of climate and soil conditions, with cash crops such as rice and wheat crops benefiting the most. Traditional and commercial farmers reap higher productivity, reduced costs, and relatively easy management. But the question is, at what cost? 

Although monoculture may appear to be a straightforward agricultural approach, it can lead to a host of issues. Planting the same crop repeatedly can make it more susceptible to pests, requiring increased use of herbicides and pesticides, which can harm pollinators and reduce biodiversity in the long run. Furthermore, soil fertility may decline, leading to greater usage of fertilizers and water.

In the face of all these issues with monoculture; enter ‘Intercropping’, the more sustainable alternative. 

Intercropping: enabling the simultaneous cultivation of different crops on a single plot of land.

This practice is part of the neatest of agricultural tricks known as ‘Polyculture’, where more than one crop species is cultivated, or farm animal reared, within a single ecosystem allowing nature to maintain its health. Polyculture has its subtypes such as permaculture, cover cropping, and intercropping, however, this blog will be discussing intercropping in detail for now. 

Intercropping is about growing more than two plants and crops in temporal and spatial overlaps. The fundamental concept of intercropping involves the strategic selection of two or more plant species that can be cultivated together in a way that allows them to complement, rather than compete with, each other. 

Choosing which crops to intercrop, that is the formation of ‘companion matches’, requires careful consideration of factors such as plant families, land type, maturity times, growth habits (including sunlight and water needs), and the local demand for the crops. These factors must be balanced to ensure that the intercropping arrangement results in mutually beneficial relationships between the crops, rather than competition for resources. 

When selecting companion matches it is important to avoid planting crops from the same family together to mitigate pest infestations, and to consider potential disease outbreaks due to close interactions. Adding culinary herbs and attractant species can help repel pests and attract pollinators. Legumes can be paired with non-legumes to improve soil fertility, while plants with allelopathic properties should be carefully considered. Finally, it is important to select plants that provide physical support for each other and to balance slow and fast-growing crops to ensure sufficient space for growth.

Intercropping aids in efficient utilization of land and helps protect crops against unfavorable weather conditions. 

An apt example of intercropping is the cultivation of legumes with cereals. This pairing is beneficial for legumes are well-known for their nitrogen-fixation properties hence providing additional plant nutrients to the soil while also reducing soil erosion. 

Intercropping thus offers a variety of benefits over monoculture farming. The goal in mind when employing intercropping practices is to make sure that maximum yields and profits are reaped with the least amount of harm caused to the environment; goals that are surely achieved. 

Intercropping can increase the yields of crops in agriculture in several ways, including:

  1. Efficient use of resources: Intercropping allows for the efficient use of resources such as sunlight, nutrients, and water, as different crops have different requirements and can use resources that would otherwise go unused.
  2. Enhanced soil fertility: Some intercropped crops can fix nitrogen, which can increase the fertility of the soil and benefit the growth of other crops.
  3. Reduced pest and disease pressure: Intercropping can help reduce pest and disease pressure, as different crops attract different pests and diseases, and intercropping can disrupt their life cycles.
  4. Diversification of income: Intercropping can provide farmers with a more diversified income stream, as they can harvest multiple crops from the same plot of land.
  5. Increased stability: Intercropping can provide more stable yields over time, as it can reduce the risk of crop failure due to weather or other environmental factors.

The choice of crops for intercropping in Punjab and Sindh in Pakistan depends on several factors such as soil type, climate, availability of water, and market demand. However, some commonly intercropped crops in the region are maize, sorghum, cowpea, mung bean, and pigeonpea. These crops can be intercropped with other crops like cotton, sugarcane, and wheat to provide multiple benefits such as increased yield, better weed control, and more efficient use of resources.

In the kharif season, which is the monsoon summer season in South Asia, some of the best crops for intercropping are:

  • Maize and cowpea
  • Sorghum and pigeon pea
  • Cotton and soybean
  • Groundnut and mung bean
  • Sesame and green gram
  • Okra and black gram

Intercropping these crops can help in better utilization of resources and improving the overall productivity of the land. These crops have complementary growth habits, nutrient requirements, and root systems that make them suitable for intercropping. Additionally, intercropping can increase overall productivity and improve soil health.

Some of the best crops for intercropping in the winter Rabi season in Pakistan include:

  • Wheat and mustard
  • Wheat and peas
  • Chickpea and wheat
  • Chickpea and garlic
  • Potato and peas

Pakistan was recently able to achieve self-sufficiency in mung bean production, with an output of 253,000 tonnes against the national requirement of 180,000 tonnes owing to the adoption of intercropping strategies and the promotion of pulse commodities cultivation. Other pulse commodities such as mash bean, chickpea, and lentil have also shown an increase in cultivation area and production attributed to the efficient application of intercropping, a sight that is certainly hopeful for the future of a more self-sufficient Pakistan. 

Pakistan may be on its way of becoming self-sufficient in pulses owing to intercropping. 

To summarize, intercropping aims to make harmonious matches of crops on the otherwise uniformly cultivated field. Where monoculture seems like the primary choice in modern agriculture, the resultant significantly increased yields are neither sustainable nor without risks. Intercropping on the other hand, is a time-honored technique which has been refined and honed with time and present-day farmers stand to benefit much from the evolved modern advancements such as precision agriculture tools and scientific knowledge of intercropping benefits.


Intercropping: Match Made on Field

Sophomore interested in Agriculture.

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