Book Review: Intercropping and the Scientific Basis of Traditional Agriculture

Book Review by Michael Pilarski


Intercropping and the Scientific Basis of Traditional Agriculture. Donald Q. Innis. Intermediate Technology Publications. 1997. 179 pages. Hundreds of references.

Wow!! Great book! Innis has done a great service for permaculturists. As well as a great service to the world’s traditional farmers. What Innis has done here is pull together the results of a lifetime of work on traditional agriculture, which conclusively show that monocultures yield less than polycultures and elucidating the reasons why this is so.  There are ecological advantages to intercropping as well as yield advantages.

Mostly Innis was looking at simple intercrops of two or three crops.  His studies show an increase in yields per acre when intercropping of usually at least one quarter more yield to double the yields (and occasionally even more) as compared to the yields of the same crops grown in monocultures in the same area.

Permaculture typically includes dozens or even hundreds of crops in its polycultures as do many traditional agroforestry systems.  What Innis says isn’t so revolutionary to me, but it certainly is revolutionary to the status quo out there. Most agricultural scientists of today are working for agribusiness. Reading Innis is refreshing.

Proponents of current industrial, monoculture agriculture say that the world will starve without their type of agriculture (implying that inefficient traditional farmers should be cleared off the land). Innis states that one of the reasons for world hunger right now is that too much of the land is devoted to monoculture and that the results of today’s monoculture will make it more difficult for the farmers (and populations) of the future.  This is an echo of one of permaculture founder Bill Mollison’s famous quotes “If we don’t stop agriculture, we’re all dead”.  He was referring to industrial monocropping agriculture when he made this quote.  Bill was very fond of traditional peoples and much of permaculture is based on indigenous agriculture.

The difference between Mollison and Innis is that Innis has decades of rigorous fieldwork documenting intercropping.  Innis worked most extensively in Jamaica, Nepal and India. There is a lot of practical information in this volume with info about specific intercrops used by thousands of farmers.  For instance what grows well with banana or sweet potato, Irish potato, avocado, citrus, coffee, taro, choco, and many others.  In other words the crop combinations for the most part are from the subtropics.  I happen to be into subtropical crop combinations myself, but even if you only wanted to know about cold temperate crops the book is worth reading for all the insights the book will give you on putting crop combinations and polycultures together.  The underlying scientific reasons. 

Several quotes from Innis.

“Recent research on indigenous methods (see Chapter 1) suggests that world hunger and soil destruction result at least partly from the abandonment of traditional agriculture and intercropping.”

“This example makes clear the difference between commercial and traditional farming is the same as the difference between farming for maximum profit and farming for maximum yield”.

“Perhaps modern economics, like narrowly-focused science, is to a certain degree responsible for world food shortages.”

“To increase profits by neglecting erosion control ensures that profits will exist only in the short term. Future farmers will find themselves working under very difficult conditions because of the soil-destructive practices of the present.”

So the next time someone says to you that we can’t feed the world without monoculture agriculture pull out this book which shows that the only way we can feed the world is with polyculture agriculture.


MICHAEL “SKEETER” PILARSKI is a life-long student of plants and earth repair. His farming career started in 2nd grade and his organic farming career began in 1972 at age 25. Michael founded Friends of the Trees Society in 1978 and took his first permaculture design course in 1982. Since 1988 he has taught 36 permaculture design courses in the US and abroad. His specialties include earth repair, agriculture, seed collecting, nursery sales, tree planting, fruit picking, permaculture, agroforestry, forestry, ethnobotany, medicinal herb growing, hoeing and wildcrafting. He has hands-on experience with over 1000 species of plants. He is a prolific gathering organizer and likes group singing.