Back to nature: Immense need for crop diversification and role of agroforestry 

Input cost to increase productivity has increased over the last five decades


Generally, the farmer’s fate is drooped with a fortune from sowing to harvesting. A farmer may confront a series of adversities and climatic vagaries during agricultural production, such as erratic rainfall, stone hail, drought, flood, and so on.

In addition, challenges like post-harvest losses, storage and unavailability of accessible proper marketing are further aggravating the problem. Currently, the human-wildlife and / or human-crops conflict, forest fires, organic matter deficit soil, monoculture, plant disease and infestation, migration and the reluctance of youth towards agriculture are a new array of problems. 

The traditional approach of low input-based extensive and diversified agricultural practices termed as ‘crop diversification’ could be an alternate approach that might be used to save farming as a counter-strategy for farming bio-socio-psychological anomalies. Crop diversification is a strategy applied to grow more diverse crops from shrinking land resources with an increase in productivity in the same arable land.  

For more than five decades, Indian agriculture has been facing severe problems related to an increase in input cost to increase productivity. However, the productivity proportional to input maintains for a certain time before plateauing and then progressively declines in many cases.

Farmers have been using the common government-promoted Green Revolution cropping pattern rice-wheat-rice for a longer time to enhance productivity. Unilaterally, following the same cropping pattern for a longer period of time has extracted the specific nutrients from the soil, resulting in soil deficiency in those nutrients along with a declined population of microfauna in the soil. 

The microfaunal population is responsible for the mobilisation and absorption of particular nutrients in the crop rhizosphere. Reduction of the microfaunal population in the soil is a serious issue because without microfaunal activities, the soil is lost to self-perpetuate and its ecology for crop production. 

Agriculture, as a business, does not always suffice the purpose: In a country like India, africulture is livelihood or dubsistence for most farmers, not business. 

The mono-cropping pattern also reduces resource-use efficiency. Thus, breaking the mono-cropping pattern by the introduction of diverse crops and cropping patterns helps in reviving the soil health and increasing the resource-use efficiency. 

Traditional pattern of agriculture in India has wider crop diversity, more stable and pro-nature. In the Garhwal Himalayan region of India, Barahnaja is a crop diversification system for cultivating 12 crops in a year. ‘Barah anaaj’ literally means ‘12 foodgrains’ and is the traditional heritage of the area. 

So, the question here is, why would farmers like to change the crop rotation? It is evident that longer rotation, less income, more extensive management and limited adoption are limiting the expansion of the system contrary to monoculture for ease of management. 

It is pertinent to find out why there is a need for crop diversification and changing the crop rotation. If we continue to follow the same cropping pattern for a few more years, it will create a deficiency of soil nutrients. To meet the deficiency of soil nutrients, farmers apply fertilisers periodically, which further results in a change in the soil’s chemical and biological properties. 

Furthermore, mono-cropping patterns have more chances to be attacked by the same types of insects and pests, which in turn are controlled by pumping the insecticides and pesticides. This accumulates the residue of these chemicals in soil which pollutes the soil, crop and environment. 

Similarly, weed infestations are on the rise too, necessitating the application of weedicides or herbicides to eradicate them. Thus, persistent use of chemicals declines productivity, reduces resource-use efficiency and deteriorates soil health. 

Therefore, there is an urgent need to change the crops and cropping pattern, that is crop diversification. It is important by way of addition of new crop(s) as intercrop and / or predecessor or successor crops, changing numbers of the crop (multi-cropping), modified cropping system and adopting a new, integrated cropping pattern with changing agronomical practices. 

In this way, integration of trees in the cropping system, also known as agroforestry, plays a significant role in sustaining crop diversification. It is a part of primitive and tribal agriculture nourished with indigenous technical knowledge,

Agroforestry is a land-use system that includes trees, crops and / or livestock in a spatial and temporal manner, balancing both ecological and economic interactions of biotic and abiotic components. It harnesses the complementarity between trees and crops for efficient utilisation of available resources.

Agroforestry can generate food, feed, fruits, fibre, fuel, fodder, fish, flavour, fragrance, floss, gum and resins as well as other non-wood products for food and nutritional security. It can also support  livelihoods and promote productive, resilient agricultural environments in all ecologies. 

Agroforestry is an important land-use system for diversification around the world in different spheres of biological, ecological, economical and sociological considerations. 

Globally, different agroforestry practices have played a key role in crop diversification. In North America, for instance, farmers preferred agroforestry over agriculture to improve their economic gain and natural resource conservation. 

In Europe, agroforestry trees are dominated by oaks, pines, junipers and firs. In Australia, Pinus radiata and Eucalyptus globulus while in the African continent, coffee, cocoa, coconut, oil palm, and rubber are common agroforestry trees on farms. 

The home gardens of the southern part of India are a classic example of maintaining temporal and spatial arrangement for crop diversity, with trees resulting in sustainable productivity from the unit area.

The major agroforestry practices in India include multifunctional improved fallows, home gardens, plantation crop-based mixed-species production systems, alley cropping, woodlots, windbreaks, protein banks, shifting cultivation and Taungya in different regions. 

Agroforestry contributes to a multifunctional production system which enhances biodiversity due to the creation of diverse habitat for macro- and micro-organisms and maintaining landforms for future generations. 

It provides opportunities to integrate traditionally grown crops, with other commercial crops such as cereals, oilseeds, pulses, vegetables, fruits in agrihorticulture, hortisilviculture, silvolericulture, silvofloriculture, silvimedicinal, agrihortisilviculture, aquaforestry, silvipasture, hortipasture. 

The integrated farming system is an offshoot of agroforestry, advocating the diversification of the agri-production with other associated secondary and tertiary agriculture practices. The role of micro-organisms, nitrogen-fixing trees, leaf litter decomposition, forest hydrology and nutrient fluxes in agroforestry is well known to promote the crop diversification with various underutilised and wild crops. 

The role of trees on a farm directly and indirectly envisages the resiliency in the cropping system, along with barriers for negative externalities. Thus, it can be said that the tree diversity on a farm is a prerequisite solution for the promotion of crop diversity, not only at the farm level (homesteads) but also at the agricultural landscape level in different ecologies. 

Though it may sound impracticable but nature makes us learn in this climate change scenario to adopt the sustainable cropping and land management system to support more small and marginal farmers, which accounts 90 per cent of agro-system adoption. We hope that in the future, we will scale up this agroforestry system for better food and land management on this earth and maintain the crop diversity. 

Views expressed are the authors’ own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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