Following a political backlash against the European Commission’s recent plans for more sustainable farming, intercropping is emerging as a beacon of hope to reduce the economic and environmental divide among opposing factions.
Over the last year, some farming groups and their political allies have rallied against the European Commission’s proposals to enhance nature and reduce pesticide use, arguing that it threatens livelihoods and food security.
This narrative was fuelled by post-pandemic inflation and the war in Ukraine disrupting supply chains. “This is simply not acceptable for us. We cannot continue as if nothing has happened to our economy since the start of the war,” said Manfred Weber, leader of the European People’s Party in the European Parliament in July 2023.
However little-used farming solutions like intercropping may help shift messaging back towards a pursuit of environmental gains. Cultivating different crops together brings a range of benefits like enhanced soil health, reduced reliance on agrochemicals and new revenue streams for farmers. This practice is known as 'intercropping' and some policy experts think it can rejuvenate discussions on sustainable agriculture in the EU, which have soured in recent months.
“Intercropping can help change the narrative that farming is the enemy of the environment,” said Antonella Rossetti, a senior advisor at Farm Europe, an agricultural think tank focusing on EU policies that blend economic and environmental sustainability.
“Intercropping can reduce inputs and increase outputs, which is always interesting for farmers,” said Antonella, adding that food producers want to protect the environment because they depend on it – if they have “well-designed policies” to address barriers of adoption.
Antonella is also part of LEGUMINOSE, an EU project researching the benefits of intercropping in eight European countries, as well as in Egypt and Pakistan. Early results from one LEGUMINOSE test farm found a 27% yield increase in the intercropped plot compared to monoculture strips on the same farm, alongside reduced rates of weeds and plant disease – meaning less need for the farmer to buy and use agricultural chemicals.
Farm Europe plans to build upon this research and extract key policy insights that could then be refined and used as effective recommendations for legislators in future sustainable agriculture proposals.
“The ambition is to provide more concrete intercropping support that makes it both feasible for farmers and good for the environment,” said Antonella, adding that their work could address education around best practices, and access and investment to machinery for harvesting different crops grown together.
Farm Europe is currently analysing where these policy recommendations could be the most effective, such as the EU’s Directive on Soil Monitoring and Resilience, Protein Strategy and Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The think tank will also be organising workshops in the first half of 2024 to explore where and what these policies could target – with all sides of the EU sustainable farming debate, including Members of the European Parliament, Commission officials, Member State representatives, NGOs and farming groups.
Antonella hopes that this will create more widespread support for intercropping compared to other sustainable farming policies recently. “The wave of the EU Green Deal cannot be stopped,” she said. “It’s now about finding good solutions for farmers that deliver healthy soils and a future where they can preserve their livelihoods and the environment.”
Practical research for practical policies
LEGUMINOSE is also embracing the stakeholder approach in its field experiments to produce more practical results, which will ultimately feed into the policy recommendations developed by Farm Europe.
Professor Magdalena Frąc is coordinating LEGUMINOSE’s field activities in different countries, including Poland, Czech Republic and Denmark, and explains that the project involves farmers and agriculture associations in its field trials, also known as ‘on-farm living labs’, to help reveal the business case for intercropping.
“In total, within the project, we will have 180 on-farm living labs,” Prof. Frąc said, adding that this research will create more valid data while increasing farmers’ knowledge about the benefits of legume-cereal intercropping.
Each living lab will be tailored to its region with the farmer choosing the techniques and crops most relevant to their area, such as seed mix and planting methods – with the results collected and analysed by the project’s researchers. Prof. Frąc is expecting results to increase awareness of intercropping among farmers and a decrease in monocultural agriculture, alongside a reduced dependency on agrochemicals, like fertilizers – something she believes will give early adopters a head start in aligning with EU policy.
“This is very important because now we have the EU Green Deal, and its 2030 Biodiversity Strategy, where there are requirements to decrease the use of mineral fertilizers,” she said.
Other policy lessons may emerge from the UK where the Soil Association, a charity promoting sustainable agriculture, is coordinating more of LEGUMINOSE’s living labs. Jerry Allford, an advisor from the Soil Association, is leading the UK trials and explained that British farmers can access subsidies for intercropping, which could help inform the project’s research.
“The UK government had to produce a whole new farm support payment system to replace the CAP’s basic payment scheme and they have gone for something called ‘public money for public goods’,” Jerry said, adding that the farmers will be paid £55 per hectare of intercropping. “There's a bit of political push just at the right time for this project.”
However, subsidies like this do not mean that intercropping will scale up fast – currently, only 2% of European farmers use a legume-cereal intercrop. Jerry explains that while farmers are very keen to try intercropping, due to the current environmental and political context, they also see the challenge in growing, harvesting and selling different crops from the same plot of land.
“We need to work together to find solutions to overcome these problems,” he said.
LEGUMINOSE will be working with farmers in all of its 180 living labs on a range of situations to help increase the adoption of intercropping, including where policies will have an important role to play. Antonella says that the inputs from the farmers and researchers are a critical foundation to develop “rational and reasonable policy recommendations”.
“Good [sustainable agriculture] policies need to have links from the bottom-up to ensure it is interesting for farmers and we see results,” she said.
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