Does intercropping have a future in China? : insights from a case study in Gansu Province

Yu Hong

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


Intercropping is the simultaneous cultivation of two or more crop species in the same field. It has been practiced in China for thousands of years. In recent decades, researchers in several disciplines have shown increasing interest in intercropping systems, due to their potential to generate higher yields and counteract resource degradation. Much research on intercropping has been carried out from an eco-physiological perspective in China in recent decades. However, a socio-economic analysis is critically needed to obtain more insight into why farmers adopt intercropping or not and why they shift from one production system to another. This study tries to fill this gap in the existing literature. Its main aim is to obtain a better understanding of farmers’ decisions on intercropping in China. The analysis conducted in two distinct perspectives. The first empirical study aims to present an overview of the current prevalence of intercropping, and its recent trends in China, using national survey dataset. The other empirical studies focus on (relay) intercropping in small-scale farming, using a case study on household decision-making in Gaotai County, Gansu Province, northwest China.

Results from the first study show that intercropping was practiced on approximately three percent of the arable land in the surveyed villages, while agroforestry was practiced on approximately one percent of the arable land and one percent of the area of plantation plus forest land. The use of both these systems did not significantly change between 2009 and 2014. An explorative village-level analysis of factors associated with mixed species cultivation practices (intercropping and agroforestry) reveals a significant positive association with labour availability, and a smaller, but mostly significant, negative association with agricultural machinery power. In the case study, results reveal that technical efficiency scores are positively affected by the share of land assigned to intercropping. Other findings are that natural assets (land and irrigation water) are important determinants of the use of intercropping, while human assets (including labor-land ratios) and financial assets do not have a significant effect. Water and labor scarcity and declining maize prices all affect negatively the potential use of intercropping in the future; among the aforementioned three factors, (rural) labor scarcity has the most negative impact on intercropping.

To conclude, intercropping is practiced on a small but non-negligible proportion of China’s arable land, and has not declined in recent years. Policies aimed at dealing with resources scarcity and liberalizing maize market should take the impact on use of intercropping into account, and appropriate machinery for intercropping should be developed. Given its relatively high land use efficiency, and its relatively high profit in the case study region in northwest China, intercropping may continue to provide pathways for the intensification of agricultural food production and to contribute to the growth of farmers’ income in China.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Bulte, Erwin, Promotor
  • Heerink, Nico, Co-promotor
  • van der Werf, Wopke, Co-promotor
Award date2 Jul 2018
Place of PublicationWageningen
Print ISBNs9789463437790
Publication statusPublished - 2 Jul 2018


  • nature-inclusive agriculture
  • intercropping
  • agroforestry
  • China
  • farmers
  • nature
  • agrosilvicultural systems
  • returns
  • yields


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