Improving intercropping: a synthesis of research in agronomy, plant physiology and ecology

Rob W Brooker, Alison E Bennett, Wen-Feng Cong, Tim J Daniell, Timothy S George, Paul D Hallett, Cathy Hawes, Pietro P M Iannetta, Hamlyn G Jones, Alison J Karley, Long Li, Blair M McKenzie, Robin J Pakeman, Eric Paterson, Christian Schöb, Jianbo Shen, Geoff Squire, Christine A Watson, Chaochun Zhang, Fusuo ZhangJunling Zhang, Philip J White

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

721 Citations (Scopus)


Intercropping is a farming practice involving two or more crop species, or genotypes, growing together and coexisting for a time. On the fringes of modern intensive agriculture, intercropping is important in many subsistence or low-input/resource-limited agricultural systems. By allowing genuine yield gains without increased inputs, or greater stability of yield with decreased inputs, intercropping could be one route to delivering ‘sustainable intensification’. We discuss how recent knowledge from agronomy, plant physiology and ecology can be combined with the aim of improving intercropping systems. Recent advances in agronomy and plant physiology include better understanding of the mechanisms of interactions between crop genotypes and species – for example, enhanced resource availability through niche complementarity. Ecological advances include better understanding of the context-dependency of interactions, the mechanisms behind disease and pest avoidance, the links between above- and below-ground systems, and the role of microtopographic variation in coexistence. This improved understanding can guide approaches for improving intercropping systems, including breeding crops for intercropping. Although such advances can help to improve intercropping systems, we suggest that other topics also need addressing. These include better assessment of the wider benefits of intercropping in terms of multiple ecosystem services, collaboration with agricultural engineering, and more effective interdisciplinary research.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)107-117
Number of pages11
JournalNew Phytologist
Issue number1
Early online date3 Nov 2014
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2015

Bibliographical note

This paper arose, in part, from the meeting ‘Intercropping and Food Security’, Dundee, UK, 20–21 March 2013, facilitated through the UK's Science and Innovation Network's Global Partnerships Fund. This work was also supported by the Scottish Government Rural and Environment Science and Analytical Services Division (RESAS) through Themes 1, 3, 5 and 7 of their Strategic Research Programme, and by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (31210103906, 31330070, 30925024, 31270477) and the Innovative Group Grant of the National Science Foundation of China (31121062). C.S. was supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation (PA00P3_136474 and PZ00P3_148261). Thanks are also extended to Chantel Davies (Stockbridge Technology Centre, UK).


  • agriculture
  • ecosystem services
  • intercropping
  • organismal interactions
  • resource use
  • soil biodiversity
  • sustainable intensification


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