9 Elements of Sustainable Agriculture Explained

Elements of sustainable agriculture are intercropping, polyculture, agroforestry, multiple cropping, mixed farming, permaculture, biological control, agricultural diversification, resource conservation.

These are discussed individually as follows;




1). Intercropping as one of the Elements of Sustainable Agriculture

Intercropping is an element of sustainable farming whereby two or more crop species are made to grow simultaneously on the same agricultural land [4].

In intercropping, it is not necessary that the crops must be cultivated or harvested simultaneously. The basic concept of intecropping is the presence of these multiple crop species on the same piece of land at any given time.

The practice of intercropping is more common in areas where the land is of relatively low quality and has suffered from degradation [3].

This is because intercropping helps to maximize resources like water and nutrients, thereby improving resource-efficiency of such degraded lands.

It can be said that intercropping takes advantage of biodiversity to allocate resources and optimize productivity. For example, legumes can be cultivated to supply nitrogen that is needed by other crops on the same land. Cover crops can also be used to improve the quality of soil and mitigate leaching erosion.

As one of the elements of sustainable agriculture, intercropping has been used as a tool to improve agricultural crop production and address food insecurity problems [11].

Elements of Sustainable Agriculture: Intercropping (Credit: Ethan Bass 2017 .CC BY-SA 4.0.)
Elements of Sustainable Agriculture: Intercropping (Credit: Ethan Bass 2017 .CC BY-SA 4.0.)


2). Polyculture as one of the Elements of Sustainable Agriculture

Polyculture is the simultaneous growth of more than one agricultural specie in a given area and at a given time.

It is common to find the term polyculture being used interchangeably with intercropping. However, they are two different concepts entirely.

The difference between polyculture and intercropping is that polyculture is a broader agricultural element which concerns both crops and livestock, simultaneous and non-simultaneous cultivation, and can be used to describe all methods involving multiple species. On the other hand, intercropping deals mainly with crops and is a sub-concept under polyculture.

This means that methods like crop rotation and poultry, cattle or fish biodiversity all fall under polyculture. Intercropping itself, which is simultaneous multi-specie crop growth, is a method of polyculture.

As one of the elements of sustainable agriculture, polyculture seeks to achieve ecological sustainability by replicating the conditions of symbiosis and interdependence in natural ecosystems.

What this does is to simulate an agricultural ‘energy pyramid‘ that helps in the circulation of nutrients and other resources among crop and livestock species.

There are various benefits that come with polycultural practices. These include self-sustaining ecologic conditions in the agricultural system, so that crops and livestock are able to thrive without much need for eternal intervention through chemical fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide application.

Because the idea behind sustainable development is a state of efficiency, consistency, effectiveness and reliability, polyculture is one of the most optimal elements of sustainable agriculture.

The practice of polyculture is common in fish farming, whereby various compatible aquatic species are grown simultaneously [8].


3). Agroforestry as one of the Elements of Sustainable Agriculture

Agroforestry is an element of sustainable agriculture whereby perennial woody species of shrubs, bamboos and trees are grown alongside crops and/or livestock on the same agricultural land [12].

Types of agroforestry are agrosilvopastoral, agrisilviculture and silvopastoral [2]. These are distinguished based on differences in the combination of crops, forest vegetation and livestock.

The mode of spatial arrangement of these groups (crops, forest vegetation, livestock) on the agricultural land may also differ considerably from on case to another. These arrangements are applied differently to suit specific conditions and requirements.

Like polyculture, agroforestry is designed to simulate the self-sustaining conditions in a natural ecosystem like the rainforest, grassland, or tundra. By simulating such conditions, it is possible to establish a degree of efficiency and reliability in the growth and survival of agricultural species.

Because natural ecosystems are fully compatible with the environment, agricultural sustainability can be achieved through agroforestry, so that challenges like global warming, climate change and greenhouse emission can be mitigated.

In agroforestry, chemical utilization is reduced [13], while sustainable processes like biodegradation and composting may be optimized to boost productivity.

Elements of Sustainable Farming: Agroforestry (Credit: NatureDan 2014 .CC BY-SA 3.0.)
Elements of Sustainable Farming: Agroforestry (Credit: NatureDan 2014 .CC BY-SA 3.0.)


4). Multiple Cropping as one of the Elements of Sustainable Agriculture

Multiple cropping is a well-established sustainable agricultural method that involves growing more than one crop type on the same piece of land [7].

As a systematic agricultural practice and an element of sustainable farming, multiple cropping is one of the oldest and broadest methods. It covers other important concepts like polyculture and intercropping, which are sub-concepts of multiple cropping.

The difference between multiple cropping and other concepts like intercropping and polyculture is that multiple cropping involved both simultaneous and alternate growth patterns.

Unlike other elements of sustainable agriculture that are concerned with only simultaneous growth (as is the case for both intercropping and polyculture), multiple cropping deals with all patterns of multi-specie growth.

This means that so far as more than one type of crop is cultivated and grown on an agricultural land, it is multiple cropping, regardless of when these crops are grown or cultivated relative to each other.

Based on the number of crop species that are allowed to grow simultaneously at a given time, the types of multiple cropping are monoculture, duoculture and polyculture.

A major objective of multiple cropping is to optimize the productivity of agricultural lands through soil conservation, by cultivating crops in such a manner that nutrients are not depleted but rather replenished.

It is important to note that multiple cropping does not entirely cover the concept of polyculture, since the latter involves both crops and livestock while the former is primarily concerned with crops.  


5). Mixed Farming as one of the Elements of Sustainable Agriculture

Mixed farming is the use of a single piece of agricultural land for a variety of agricultural projects, processes and activities [9].

From the above definition it is clear that mixed farming is a broad concept and can be used to describe several practices in sustainable agriculture.

The concept of mixed farming means that there are few limits to the possible simultaneous uses of agricultural land when this approach is applied. Some activities which can be carried out in mixed farming are food, cash and feeder crop cultivation, cattle rearing, snail, fish and poultry farming.

As can be predicted, the diversity and effectiveness of mixed farming depends on the size and potency of the agricultural land. Other factors may include suitability of projects with respect of specific environmental conditions; materials, tools and techniques.

The ideology and objective behind mixed farming as a sustainable agricultural element is to maximize profit, productivity and economic potential while minimizing risk. It also aims to utilize diversity in a most beneficial manner that can make farming sustainable and reliable.

Mixed Farming (Credit: VOA 2013)
Elements of Sustainable Agriculture: Mixed Farming (Credit: VOA 2013)


6). Permaculture

Permaculture is the use of ethical methods to establish a state of sustainability in the interaction between crops, livestock, humans, other species, and the environment [1].

The term is derived from permanent and culture, and refers to the concept or ideology of achieving cultural permanence, which is the same as sustainability.

Permaculture works by evaluating an ecological system or area, and adopting schemes, designs and methods of land use (farming, development, settlement) that do not compromise the quality or sustainability of the area.

The practice of permaculture extends beyond sustainable agriculture to involve urban development and human settlement processes. It seeks to control how humans interact with the environment, and to mitigate negative practices like deforestation and environmental pollution.

As one of the elements of sustainable agriculture, permacultural approach makes farming sustainable by ensuring that all methods and materials used are suitable with respect to the specific needs and conditions of the ecosystem.

Some ecological conditions that are considered in permaculture include topography, soil type, climate, and drainage.

Conservative methods like hydroponics can be applied as part of permaculture when land availability and suitability are not favorable.


7). Biological Control as one of the Elements of Sustainable Agriculture

Biological control refers to the use of biological organisms, processes and products to limit the growth and survival of pests, diseases and weeds.

One of the most common applications of biological control is in the area of agricultural pests. Biological pest control utilizes organisms, products and processes that naturally feed upon or destroy pests, to control these pests and reduce their attacks on useful crops or livestock.

The idea behind biological control is to ensure that no harmful side-effects are triggered by the use of artificial materials and methods to control these pests, weeds and diseases.

An example of biological pest control is the use of parasitic organisms like tiny wasps to limit the survival of pests like caterpillars and bugs [10]. When the wasp is introduced into the farm in large numbers, it attacks these pests through parasitism and makes it difficult for the pests to survive.

Other examples include the introduction of hoverfly into farms, whose larva feeds on aphids.

The same approach is used in biological control of weeds and diseases. Organisms or biological products are introduced into the farm to inhibit the growth of such weeds and pathogens.

Biopesticides and biofungicides are products manufactured from organic raw materials like natural minerals, microbes and plants. The use of these products in place of synthetic chemicals is also a form of biological control.

Elements of Sustainable Agriculture: Biological Control (Credit: USDA/Scott Bauer 2006)
Elements of Sustainable Agriculture: Biological Control (Credit: USDA/Scott Bauer 2006)


8). Agricultural Diversification

As the name implies, agricultural diversification is the process or act of achieving agricultural diversity.

Agricultural diversity is itself a state or condition whereby a variety of methods, tools and products are involved in a single agricultural project, land or context.

There are various areas where we can achieve agricultural diversity. These include the areas of resources, applied techniques, and products.

Diversity of organic products of agriculture is often described as agricultural biodiversity [6]. Like intercropping, this is meant to improve consistency and self-sufficiency of agricultural systems by adopting and simulating the interdependent and diverse conditions of organic life in natural ecosystems.

As an element of sustainable agriculture, some objectives of this concept include boosting food production through crop diversity, establishing resiliency and sustainability, and reducing the use of harmful artificial materials or methods.


9). Conservation as one of the Elements of Sustainable Agriculture

Resource conservation has to do with the proper allocation and utilization of resources in a manner that results in efficiency, effectiveness and high performance without significant depletion or wastage of these resources.

In sustainable farming, there are various methods and concepts of resource conservation. A relatively common example of these is conservation agriculture (CA).

Conservation agriculture is a sustainable farming method that aims to grow crops and livestock productively with minimal loss or degradation of environmental resources.

A major resource which is targeted in conservation agriculture is land. The practices used in conservation agriculture are meant to serve as techniques for environmental remediation of degraded agricultural land. They also aim to reduce mechanical disturbance and nutrient depletion of soil through conservative approaches like no-tillage and cover cropping.

Aside land or soil, conservation agriculture also seeks to optimize the use of water and nutrients.

The rate of adoption of conservation agriculture so far is low compared to some other sustainable practices [5]. However, this is likely to change with innovations and advancement in sustainable agriculture.



The elements of sustainable farming are;

  1. Intercropping
  2. Polyculture
  3. Agroforestry
  4. Multiple Cropping
  5. Mixed Farming
  6. Permaculture
  7. Biological Control
  8. Agricultural Diversification
  9. Resource Conservation



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2). Amonum, J. I.; Babalola, F.; Agera, S. I. N. (2009). “Agroforestry Systems in Nigeria: Review of Concepts and Practices.” Journal of Research in Forestry, Wildlife and Environment, Vol 1. Available at: https://www.ajol.info/index.php/jrfwe/article/view/82812. (Accessed 13 July 2022).

3). Andrade, S. A. L.; Mazzafera, P.; Favarin, J. (2021). “Editorial: Intercropping Systems in Sustainable Agriculture.” Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems 5:634361. Available at: https://doi.org/10.3389/fsufs.2021.634361. (Accessed 13 July 2022).

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6). Heywood, V. (2013). “Overview of Agricultural Biodiversity and its Importance to Nutrition and Health.” Diversifying Food and Diets:Using Agricultural Biodiversity to Improve Nutrition and Health. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/236111249_Overview_of_Agricultural_Biodiversity_and_its_Importance_to_Nutrition_and_Health. (Accessed 13 July 2022).

7). Lizarazo, C.; Tuulos, A.; Jokela, V.; Viliavuuspalvelu, E.; Mäkelä, P. S. A. (2020). “Sustainable Mixed Cropping Systems for the Boreal-Nemoral Region.” Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems 4. Available at: https://doi.org/10.3389/fsufs.2020.00103. (Accessed 13 July 2022).


9). Ray, R. K.; Mukherjee, A.; Shubha, K.; Singh, D. K.; Kumar, D.; Kumar, U. (2020). “Mixed farming a viable option for sustainable agriculture.” Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/342521084_Mixed_farming_a_viable_option_for_sustainable_agriculture. (Accessed 13 July 2022).

10). Wang, Z.; Liu, Y.; Shi, M.; Huang, J.; Chen, X. (2019). “Parasitoid wasps as effective biological control agents.” Journal of Integrative Agriculture 18(4):705-715. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/S2095-3119(18)62078-7. (Accessed 13 July 2022).

11). Weih, M.; Minguez, M. I.; Tavoletti, S. (2022). “Intercropping Systems for Sustainable Agriculture.” Agriculture 12(2):291. Available at: https://doi.org/10.3390/agriculture12020291. (Accessed 13 July 2022).

12). Wilson, M.; Lovell, S. T. (2016). “Agroforestry—The Next Step in Sustainable and Resilient Agriculture.” Sustainability 8(6):574. Available at: https://doi.org/10.3390/su8060574. (Accessed 13 July 2022).

13). Zhu, X.; Liu, W.; Chen, J.; Bruiinzeel, L. A.; Mao, Z.; Yang, X.; Cardinael, R.; Meng, F.; Sidle, R.; Seitz, S.; Nair, V.; Nanko,.K.; Zou, X.; Chunfeng, C.; Jiang, X. (2020). “Reductions in water, soil and nutrient losses and pesticide pollution in agroforestry practices: a review of evidence and processes.” Plant and Soil 453(4):45-86. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11104-019-04377-3. (Accessed 13 July 2022).

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