Crop Diversification: Need, Advantages and Challenges – Explained, pointwise

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In a country like India, agriculture is a means of livelihood or subsistence for most farmers and not a business. At present, farmers face various bio-socio-psychological anomalies in farming. The traditional approach of low input-based extensive and diversified agricultural practices termed as ‘crop diversification’ could be an alternate approach to save farming and act as a counter-strategy for bio-socio-psychological anomalies.

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What is Crop diversification?

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.

Types of crop diversification
Source: Researchgate

This can be done in various forms such as the 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.

The traditional pattern of agriculture in India has wider crop diversity, and is 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.

Must read: How Punjab and Haryana are switching to sustainable cropping techniques to preserve groundwater?
What are the array of problems faced by farmers today?

1) Today’s farmers confront a series of adversities and climatic vagaries during agricultural production, such as erratic rainfall, stone hail, drought, flood, and so on. 2) In addition, challenges like post-harvest losses, storage and unavailability of accessible proper marketing are further aggravating the problem. 3) New array of problems like 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

Read more: [Kurukshetra January Summary] Smart Farming: Towards Sustainable Agriculture – Explained, pointwise
Why does India need crop diversification?

For more than five decades, 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 resulted in

– Extraction of specific nutrients from the soil, resulting in soil deficiency in those nutrients,

Declining population of microfauna in the soil: The microfaunal population is responsible for the mobilisation and absorption of particular nutrients in the crop rhizosphere. Without microfaunal activities, the soil is lost to self-perpetuate and its ecology for crop production.

– Reduced resource-use efficiency: After the Green Revolution, Indian agriculture has been facing severe problems related to an increase in input cost to increase productivity. The direct increase in productivity in proportion to increase in input is limited to a certain extent and plateaus and then decreases with further increase in inputs. In India, productivity has plateaued in most regions.

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.

The introduction of diverse crops and cropping patterns help in a) Reviving soil health, b) Increasing the population of microfauna, c) Increasing resource-use efficiency, d) Preventing change in soil’s chemical and biological properties, e) Reducing the application of weedicides or herbicides, etc.

Therefore, there is an urgent need to change the crops and cropping pattern, that is crop diversification.

Read more: Government should initiate steps to make Agriculture remunerative
What is the role of agroforestry in crop diversification?

The integration of trees in the cropping system, also known as agroforestry, plays a significant role in sustaining crop diversification. 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.

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.

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.

Read more: Pineapple Agroforestry Systems can Address Twin Challenges of Climate Change and Biodiversity Loss
How is agroforestry practised in India?

Agroforestry is a part of primitive and tribal agriculture nourished with indigenous technical knowledge.

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

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.

Read more: Year End Review: 2021- Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare 
What are the benefits of crop diversification?

Increases Farmers’ income: Crop diversification can act as an important stress-relieving factor for the economic growth of the farming community and provide economic stability.

Increases natural biodiversity and productivity: Crop diversification can increase natural biodiversity, strengthening the ability of the agroecosystem to respond to climatic and environmental stresses.

Reduces the risk of crop failure: As different crops will respond to climate scenarios in different ways, crop diversification will significantly reduce the risk of total crop failure. Further, diversification will also help in mitigating natural calamities.

Ensure Food and nutritional security: Crop diversification enables farmers to grow surplus products for sale at the market. Thus facilitating both food and nutritional security.

Access to national and international markets: It can enable farmers to gain access to national and international markets with new products, food and medicinal plants.

Environmental Conservation: Adoption of crop diversification helps in the conservation of natural resources like the introduction of legumes in the rice-wheat cropping system, which has the ability to fix atmospheric Nitrogen to help sustain soil fertility.

Read more: Our farm income and nutrition challenge amid climate change
What are the challenges faced in crop diversification?

Dependence on Monsoon: Around 55% of India’s Cultivable Land is Rain-fed with heavy dependence on monsoon. Hence, some crops may not be able to survive in the prevailing environmental conditions.

Fragmented land holding: It makes it difficult to use efficient modern technology on large scale, raises the cost of land boundary management, land disputes etc. 

The shift from Food crops to Commercial Crops: This especially includes Cotton in the Deccan belt; and Sugarcane in the Green revolution belt and Krishna-Godavari basin. 

Inadequate infrastructure: Poor basic infrastructure like rural roads, power, transport, communications etc are major impediments for diversification.

Lack of Knowledge and Training: Indian farmers are inadequately trained. Further, there is persistent and large scale illiteracy amongst farmers.

Over-use of resources like land and water resources: Crop diversification might amplify resource consumption, thereby creating a negative impact on the environment and sustainability of agriculture. For instance, Animal agriculture is the second-largest contributor to human-made Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions after fossil fuels.

Read more: How do emerging technologies provide opportunity for crop diversification?
How to improve crop diversification in India?

India needs to identify crops and varieties that may suit a range of environments and farmers’ preferences. Then a) India needs to frame adequate skill development policies to promote the crops and varieties amongst rural livelihoods, b) Research institutes such as ICAR should conduct research on further crop diversification, c) The government should procure crops produced other than wheat and rice at a Minimum Support Price. d) Reduce agricultural emissions through smarter livestock handling, technology-enabled monitoring of fertilizer application and more efficient agricultural techniques.

Read more: Why does India need MSP for other crops?

Although there are challenges that need to be addressed, crop diversification provides an opportunity to double farmers income and create food and nutritional security for the nation.

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