Crop Diversity: A ‘Win-Win’ For Incomes and Ecology

Crop Diversity: A ‘Win-Win’ For Incomes and Ecology

Around the world, farmers are facing challenges such as climate change, supply chain issues due to the COVID-19 pandemic, habitat and ecology destruction, all while trying to maintain profitability and sustainability. 

The current trend around the world is to simplify major cropping systems by growing monocultures on enlarged fields in homogenised landscapes. But new research suggests that diversifying agricultural systems beyond a narrow selection of crops leads to a range of ecosystem improvements – while also maintaining or improving yields.

Published in the academic journal Science Advances, a recent paper analysed the results of 5,188 separate studies. The meta-analysis by an international team of researchers looked at a massive 41,946 comparisons (across many different countries in many different climates and soils) between diversified and simplified agricultural practices. By combining data from thousands of studies, the research team was able to gain a new level of insights that wouldn’t be possible with individual experiments.  

The results? In 63% of the cases examined, they found that diversification both enhanced ecosystem services and also maintained – or even improved – crop yields.

There is clearly a lot to be gained from diversifying cropping practices. So, how can this diversity be achieved? A range of farming practices can introduce more diversity to cropland, including:

  • Crop rotation
  • Planting grassland strips within and along fields
  • Establishing wildlife habitats near fields
  • Reducing tillage
  • Enriching soils with organic matter.

These practices:

  • Improve water quality
  • Increase pollination
  • Promote pest regulation by natural enemies
  • Improve nutrient turnover
  • Reduce negative climate impacts by sequestering carbon in the soil.

In this way, diversification can actually reverse the negative impacts of simplified forms of cropping. In addition, the benefits of diversification go beyond increased yields. 

Other benefits of diversification:

  • Increased income – New activities can unlock new income opportunities and increase quality of life.
  • Adaptability – Greater diversity inspires farmers to seek new opportunities and adapt quicker to challenges. 
  • Stability – A range of farming activities ensures that farmers spread their risk by creating more than one income source. 
  • Develop new skills – Farmers running new ventures have the opportunity to learn new skills and practices. 

Before embarking on a diversified enterprise, it’s advisable to start small, since you will need time to learn new skills and stretch your management abilities while learning about new crops and production methods. As your skills develop, you can begin to build more diversity into your operations. 

The proof is in the profits

The researchers hope that by showing that more sustainable crop diversification practices do not decrease yields (and, in some cases, increase them), they might encourage farmers to consider implementing them. In South Africa, the challenges brought by current climatic and economic conditions should provide an impetus for farmers to adopt diversification as a valuable strategy to deal with some of these problems.

Sustainable solutions start in the soil
Get in touch with the Zylem team to find out more about how to build a soil health strategy into your crop diversification. Contact us on 033 347 2893 or send your enquiry to

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