Project (2022)

The Forgotten History of Intercropping: Changing Perceptions among Western Agronomists since the 19th Century

In the early twentieth century, colonial agricultural officers often regarded “intercropping” as a prime example of peasant “backwardness.” Unlike the orderly planting of single crops in rows familiar from European farming (monoculture), it was common in tropical agriculture to find several crops planted in and amongst one another, an arrangement which many officers dismissed as “chaotic.” By the 1970s, however, the perceptions of Western agronomists had begun to change. Amongst the criticisms of industrial agriculture were arguments against monoculture: e.g., that crops were more vulnerable to pests and disease. From the ’70 s, accordingly, agronomists in Europe and North America took a growing interest in intercropping since it appeared to be superior to monoculture in several respects.

In championing intercropping, however, agronomists often declared that it was a new practice on which little research had been done. In claiming this, they overlooked the fact that during the interwar period, some colonial agricultural scientists had in fact recognized the strengths of intercropping and called for further study of it. Moreover, they seem to have been unaware that intercropping was commonplace on Central European peasant farms into the twentieth century. The central questions, therefore, are: Why did intercropping disappear from Western agronomists’ research agenda early in the twentieth century, only to reappear in the 1970s? And why was this practice deemed sensible amongst European peasant farmers, but irrational amongst their counterparts in the tropics?