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Farmers from Hassan district, Karnataka, India use azolla as organic fertilizer and animal feed.

Crop diversification, more diversified farming systems and a variety of rural employment enables dryland farmers to better manage risks and improve their livelihoods.

7,000 - Crop types that have been used for food by humans throughout history

75% -  The global food share that comes from only 12 plant and 5 animal species

60% Extent of the world's food energy intake that comes from rice, maize and wheat

60% Percentage of the food that comes from smallholder agriculture in developing countries, where crop diversity is key for the resilience of farming systems.

Agricultural diversification can be defined as the re-allocation of some of a farm's productive resources (land, capital, farm equipment, paid labour, etc) into new activities to reduce risk against climate variability, agricultural price volatility and other factors at the same time as generating additional income.

What drives smallholder agriculture diversification in SAT ? What are the benefits ?

Different types of diversification include:

A shift in the cropping system, for example towards high-value commodities like vegetables or more drought-tolerant crops ;

Mixed farming systems such as crop-livestock  and agroforestry;

On farm food processing; and

Non-farming activities and rural jobs such as retail shops.

Diversification as a resilience strategy - Dryland farmers are exposed to low rainfall, high inter-annual climatic variability and land degradation. The majority practice rainfed crop cultivation, with no or inefficient irrigation means. Crop diversification and genetic diversity helps mitigate climate risks such as unpredictable dry spells and flash floods. A high degree of genetic diversity for adaptation traits such as flooding tolerance, seedling heat tolerance and phosphorus efficiency is an interesting breeding trait for drylands cereals as the crop field can more easily buffer a climate « incident » and yields more.

A more mixed farming system can exploit crop-tree-livestock synergies to increase livelihoods options and incomes while enriching and buffering water and nutrient supplies, protecting soils and moderating microclimates.

The Bioreclamation of degraded lands (BDL) for instance helps women farmers in Sahel cultivate waste lands thanks to an adapted agro-forestry system with high value annual crops like okras and drought-tolerant trees or bushes like Pomme de sahel or oil-producing Jatropha curcas, and techniques of water and soil conservation techniques like zai pits.

Crop diversification, like introduction of grain legumes, leads to better soil and pest management. Incorporating nitrogen-fixing legumes through rotation or intercropping with dryland cereals improves soil fertility, reduces nutrient mining, can help trap pests and could lead to a more diversified diet and better household nutrition.

Climate change adaptation strategy – Climate change will strongly impact agriculture in semi-arid tropical regions, with the expected reduction of the length of plant growing season and temperature increases (cf CCAFS report). Diversification is one adaptation strategy already observed in countries ranked vulnerable to climate change like Sri Lanka.

Better natural resource management – The impact assessment of a watershed programme showed that increased water availability, thanks to water and soil conservation interventions, led to an increase of on-farm employment from 180 days to 312 days a year on average for farms of less than 1 hectare.

Response to market and policy environment - Farmers may diversify their production due to a change in consumer demands or changing government policy like subsidies. Farmers closer to urban centers tend to diversify towards high value products like vegetables (see our horticulture research program in Karnataka) and dairy products. 

Farming, policies and institutions: Issues related to diversification

Empowerment and enterpreneurship – improved goat farming, introduction of new crops like pigeonpea in Rajasthan and vermicompost microenterprises are some examples of diversification possible only when adequate capacity-building and adoption strategies are in place.

Experimenting with diversification - consequences on farming systems - Agricultural diversification may induce changes in the farming system, which are difficult to manage such as workload bottlenecks, competition over limited land and capital resources. Farmers need time to make decisions regarding various diversification options, to consider whether income generated by new farm enterprises will be greater than the existing activities, with similar or less risk. The Opposite Pyramid Approach (tested under CODE-WA project) is a successful approach for dissemination of diversification strategies: a large number of crop diversification options are introduced and scaled down over the years through farmer participatory evaluation.

Market dimensions of smallholder agriculture diversification - Markets for the products may be lacking. Inclusive market-oriented development policies are necessary so that smallholder farms can diversify towards high-value commodities. ICRISAT explores the various institutional arrangements like innovation platforms or contract farming, to help integrate smallholders into new supply chains.

Credit availability, proper post-harvest infrastructure and marketing are some conditions needed to enable farmers to diversify towards higher-value production. On farm value-adding activities like food processing have to respond to food safety standards.

In the coming years, agricultural policies in developing countries aim at making farms more productive to respond to the growing food insecurity and food price volatility. The way forward may be seen as specializing farming with greater input-driven agriculture and hopefully greater yields per hectare. However, for smallholder agriculture in harsh environments like the semi-arid tropics, diversification seems the way forward for sustainable intensification as it can better manage the risks for greater profits and food security in the long-term, with larger income opportunities and better resilience of the farming system.  

Pomme de Sahel, a drought-tolerant fruit tree. Diversifying to include trees reduces risks for farmers.
Sorghum grain – Growing drought tolerant crops like sorghum in addition to existing crops will build resilience to climate uncertainty.
Bioreclamation of degraded lands through a resilient and diversified cropping system.
Ethiopian boy eating chickpea pod. Legumes diversify diets and improve cropping systems. 
Livelihoods diversification under watershed programme - Vermicompost in Rajasthan.
From subsistence to market-oriented: Managing different risks (IMOD).