Student’s Corner

Intercropping Agriculture

Conventional agriculture has taken many monoculture forms. A widespread one is monocropping, which is planting crops with one species of plant. This has many consequences for the crops’ needs and strengths, which is why new methods of agriculture should be considered.

Monoculture crops have minimal biodiversity. In fact, many farmers end up with seeds containing identical genetics, meaning a crop full of genetically identical plants. Lack of biodiversity brings increased risk to pests and diseases in the crops, which is often counteracted with pesticides, which are chemicals that repel pests from the plants and contaminate the soil and surrounding areas if enough runoff occurs. Additionally, it means that a large portion of land is filled with plants with the same needs, leading to soil depletion in many forms. This is often counteracted with fertilizers and irrigation, which can lead to pollution and water scarcity. These are all some consequences of a lack of biodiversity.

Diverse genetics mean that plants are more susceptible to some things and more resistant to others. It also means that they have different needs and different benefits. This is essentially the reason that ecosystems work. They are filled with different species and genetics that all benefit each other in some way. Different genetics fight off different pests, serve other species and work as a system to survive. Hence the term “ecosystem”.

Bringing these aspects into agriculture, one can create diverse crops that serve as a system, and a popular way to do this is with intercropping, a form of agriculture that uses crops containing multiple species. Planned correctly, an intercropped crop can have plants that serve each other both directly and indirectly.

An example of this is the famous “Three Sisters”, a combination of corn, beans, and squash. The corn grows and allows the beans to climb them as stalks, a form of physical support. Beans take nitrogen from the air and pump it into the soil, where the corn can absorb it through its roots and use it as nutrition. The squash has large leaves that can shade the surrounding soil, both containing more water within the soil and creating natural compost to supply more nutrients to the system. The squash also helps repel pests and herbivores. This is a great example of a system within a crop that serves itself well.

A well-planned system can provide many benefits, both to itself, its owner, and the environment. This diverse system can supply many of its needs naturally, reducing the need for external supplements such as fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and irrigation, which will reduce environmental harm, improve crop yield, reduce stress on water supply, and increase land efficiency.

There are many options available to us that can serve many sustainable benefits. Finding ways to widespread these and implement them efficiently is important to our society. Increasing the efficiency of our agriculture and reducing our environmental impact can help us meet the needs of our planet and humanity, and as seen through intercropping, the best way to do that may be to work more with nature.

Written by Zein Tynon, Class of 2024.


Photo credits:


Brooker, R. W.; Bennett, A. E.; Cong, W. F.; Daniell, T. J.; George, T. S.; Hallett, P. D.; Hawes, C.; Iannetta, P. P.; Jones, H. G.; Karley, A. J.; et al. Improving intercropping: A synthesis of research in agronomy, Plant Physiology and ecology. The New Phytologist 2015, 206 (1), 107–117.

Brooker, R. W.; Karley, A. J.; Newton, A. C.; Pakeman, R. J.; Schöb, C. Facilitation and sustainable agriculture: A mechanistic approach to reconciling crop production and conservation. Functional Ecology 2016, 30 (1), 98–107.

Kik, M. C.; Claassen, G. D. H.; Meuwissen, M. P. M.; Smit, A. B.; Saatkamp, H. W. The economic value of sustainable soil management in arable farming systems – a conceptual framework (accessed May 8, 2022).

Li, L.; Tilman, D.; Lambers, H.; Zhang, F. S. Plant diversity and overyielding: Insights from belowground facilitation of intercropping in agriculture. New Phytologist 2014, 203 (1), 63–69.

Preshoff, K. Why is biodiversity so important? – Kim Preshoff – YouTube (accessed May 9, 2022).

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