The use of polycultures in agriculture, usually referred to as intercropping, is based on the traditional knowledge that carefully selected mixtures of crops are characterized by higher overall yields. This occurs because of more thorough use of limiting resources (complementarity), lower fertilizer requirements, greater resistance to herbivorous pests, and greater soil stability in polycultures when compared to monocultures. Additionally, growing multiple crops in a field provides farmers with a form of insurance: there is still something to harvest if one crop fails.
Because of these benefits, intercropping was the primary method of agriculture worldwide throughout most of history. Intercropping remains widespread in developing countries, though it has been largely abandoned in developed countries (e.g., the United States and in Europe) in the latter half of the twentieth century due to the industrialization of agriculture. More recently, interest in organic farming techniques and sustainable agriculture has prompted First World farmers to return to this time-tested technique for increasing crop yield without applying chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Because of this agricultural legacy, many of the earliest experimental comparisons of monocultures and polycultures were conducted to evaluate the effects of mixed cropping on crop yields and to understand mechanisms of competition and coexistence between different agricultural species.
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