Annual intercrops: An alternative pathway for sustainable agriculture

  • Lithourgidis A
  • Dordas C
  • Damalas C
 et al. 
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Abstract

Intercropping, the agricultural practice of cultivating two or more crops in the same space at the same time, is an old and commonly used cropping practice which aims to match efficiently crop demands to the available growth resources and labor. The most common advantage of intercropping is the production of greater yield on a given piece of land by making more efficient use of the available growth resources using a mixture of crops of different rooting ability, canopy structure, height, and nutrient requirements based on the complementary utilization of growth resources by the component crops. Moreover, intercropping improves soil fertility through biological nitrogen fixation with the use of legumes, increases soil conservation through greater ground cover than sole cropping, and provides better lodging resistance for crops susceptible to lodging than when grown in monoculture. Intercrops often reduce pest incidence and improve forage quality by increasing crude protein yield of forage. Intercropping provides insurance against crop failure or against unstable market prices for a given commodity, especially in areas subject to extreme weather conditions such as frost, drought, and flood. Thus, it offers greater financial stability than sole cropping, which makes the system particularly suitable for labor-intensive small farms. Besides, intercropping allows lower inputs through reduced fertilizer and pesticide requirements, thus minimizing environmental impacts of agriculture. However, intercropping has some disadvantages such as the selection of the appropriate crop species and the appropriate sowing densities, including extra work in preparing and planting the seed mixture and also extra work during crop management practices, including harvest. The selection of an appropriate intercropping system for each case is quite complex as the success of intercropping systems depend much on the interactions between the component species, the available management practices, and the environmental conditions. Plant breeding can contribute determinedly to increase of productivity of intercropping systems by investigating and exploiting the genetic variability to intercrop adaptation. This paper provides an overall view and evaluation of annual intercropping, summarizing its main advantages supported by a number of key examples from the literature which point out its great value in the context of sustainable agriculture.

Author-supplied keywords

  • Agrobiodiversity
  • Crop mixtures
  • Intercropping
  • Monocultures
  • Sustainable agriculture

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