The US-led Green Revolution of the 1960s introduced us to the kind of farming we’re all familiar with – the kind that emphasizes farm mechanization, hybrid seeds, and the use of chemical fertilizers to boost yields. But this approach has taken a toll on the land, destroyed natural resources, contributed to serious environmental issues, and undermined independent family farms that once thrived.
Bringing Ancient Practices to Modern Farming
It’s no secret that we’re in the midst of a global climate crisis, and with the world population expected to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050, we’re on the fast track to a severe food shortage, as well.
Some changes are clearly in order to create a sustainable food future, and the World Resources Institute recently released a report that offers a “menu of solutions” to achieve this. As it turns out, some of the ideas they present aren’t all that new or different; they can be traced back to two ancient farming practices that are seeing a resurgence today.
A common feature of the sustainable agriculture that indigenous groups in Mexico practice, intercropping – also known as mixed cropping or co-cultivation – involves planting different crops close together. This creates diversity and stability in the fields, suppresses weeds, and dissuades insects, which reduces the need to apply fertilizers and other chemicals to the crops. Intercropping also results in a dense network of roots that holds the soil together and shares plant resources (like nitrogen from N fixing plants), helping to minimize soil erosion and keep the earth healthy.
This practice has been around since the beginning of farming. As farming modernized, many farmers changed to mono-cropping systems to maximize the seeds they could plant on one field in a shorter period of time. But studies show that the intercropping system is more efficient and often yields 40-50% more that monocropped fields – and as demand for food continues to rise around the world, that difference will be critical.
The milpa ‘forest garden’ system is even older than the practice of intercropping. Experts believe it dates back to some of the earliest western civilizations – perhaps more than 3,000 years ago – and it’s used extensively throughout Mesoamerica, particularly with Mayan farmers.
At heart, milpa is an intercropped system that integrates maize, beans, squash, and other complementary food crops that contribute to the success of the success of those around them. However, milpa is so much more than just a farming method – it’s actually considered successional agroforestry. The practice involves rotating annual crops with a series of managed secondary stages, which ultimately sees the re-establishment of a mature forest on the piece of land. In this cycle, farmers do two years of crop cultivation and then allow eight years for secondary growth to regenerate the vegetation. When sufficient time is given for this regeneration (i.e. no less than eight years), it’s a system that is sustainable indefinitely and can generate significantly higher yields than the mechanical farming systems in use today. Of course, labor availability and skill are the main (though not insurmountable) challenges to implementing this type of farming.
Though modern technology certainly has its place, addressing the current food, agriculture, and environmental challenges we are facing will take something different. The growing movement for sustainable agriculture and ever-increasing concerns about climate change has brought about greater interest in ancient farming techniques – and they might be exactly what we need.