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Agroecological tropical farming systems through crop–livestock integration

An analysis of the operations and performance of 17 farms in three different tropical zones (Guadeloupe, Brazil, Cuba) demonstrates that systems are more agroecological, efficient and resilient when a diverse range of activities are practiced and nutrient cycles are closed with higher-intensity crop–livestock integration flows.

mixed crop-livestock systems in Guadeloupe © Fabien Stark
Updated on 11/23/2018
Published on 10/12/2018

A methodology for assessing the agroecological performance of farm systems

Today’s agriculture must respond to increasingly complex demands. It must meet the ever-growing demand for food, while using fewer inputs, as natural resources become more scarce, while also adapting to the challenges brought on by the massive changes affecting socio-ecosystems. Agroecology offers a conceptual framework for developing farming systems that are productive, self-sufficient, efficient and resilient to better meet these challenges.

Crop–livestock integration (CLI) incorporates a number of agroecological principles (Dumont et al., 2013), such as closed cycles and using diversity to improve resilience. Researchers looked at how farms with more integrated mixed crop–livestock systems (with diverse and complex nutrient flow networks) were more productive, efficient, self-sufficient and resilient (Bonaudo et al. 2014). Their study focused on two areas.

The first was to measure the level of integration in mixed crop–livestock systems using methods to analyse ecological networks (Fath et al., 2007) and assessment criteria developed for ecology (Lau et al., 2017) and applied to agroecosystems (Rufino et al., 2009). Using these methods to analyse networks, it was possible to develop indicators for system resilience.

The second objective was to evaluate the relationship between crop–livestock integration levels and the overall performance of a system.

High levels of integration lead to better performance

The methodology was applied to 17 crop–livestock farms in humid tropical climates, in three different areas with differing socioeconomic conditions: Guadeloupe, the Brazilian Amazon and Cuba.

1. Nitrogen flow networks on the farms were modelled. Levels of crop–livestock integration on each farm were assessed using two criteria: the organisation of flow networks and the intensity of nitrogen circulation. The two criteria revealed three distinct types of systems: 1) systems with few flows between crop and livestock, and little recycled nitrogen; 2) systems with many flows but with low intensity; and 3) systems with high levels of integration with intense and highly organised flows.

2. Farms with low levels of integration were either productive, but not efficient or resilient (Guadeloupian farms) or strongly resilient, but not productive (Brazilian farms). Farms with high levels of integration were, by contrast, highly productive and efficient, with fair levels of resilience (Cuban farms).

By modelling integration practices in mixed crop–livestock systems, it is possible to better understand their effects on a system’s performance and, in turn, their possible benefit in terms of agroecological transition. Research to that end is currently underway at the Animal Production Research Unit (URZ) at INRA French West Indies and Guiana. This work is looking to evaluate the effect of various integration practices on the performance of mixed crop–livestock systems in tropical areas.

In collaboration with universities in Brazil through a long-term research project, work is also underway at the Mediterranean and Tropical Livestock Systems Joint Research Unit (UMR Selmet) to better understand the appropriateness of resilience indicators developed through the study of ecological networks.  Through a partnership with the Indio Hatuey research station in Cuba, a Cuban doctoral student is testing methods to assess other types of flows (organic matter, energy), and evaluating the effectiveness of these methods.


Publications based on this work:

Stark, F., Gonzalez-Garcia, E., Navegantes, L., Miranda, T., Poccard-Chappuis, R., Archimède, H., Moulin, C.H., 2018. Crop-livestock integration determines the agroecological performance of mixed farming systems in Latino-Caribbean farms, Agronomy for Sustainable Development, 2018, 38: 4 (DOI: 10.1007/s13593-017-0479-x)

Stark, F., Fanchone, A., Semjen, I., Moulin, C.H., Archimède, H., 2016. Crop-Livestosck Integration, from single practice to global functioning in the tropics: Case studies in Guadeloupe, European Journal of Agronomy, 80, 2016, 9-20 (DOI: 10.1016/j.eja.2016.06.004)

Stark, F., Moulin, C.H., Cangiano, C., Vigne, M., Vayssières, J., González-García, E., 2016. Methodologies for evaluating agricultural and animal production systems. Part I: Generalities. Life cycle analysis (LCA) and ecological network analysis (ENA), Pastos y Forrajes, 39-1, 2016, 3-11 (http://www.redalyc.org/articulo.oa)

Other publications cited:

Bonaudo, T., Bendahan, A.B., Sabatier, R., Ryschawy, J., Bellon, S., Leger, F., Magda, D., Tichit, M., 2014. Agroecological principles for the redesign of integrated crop–livestock systems. Eur J Agron 57, 43-51.

Dumont B., Fortun-Lamothe L., Jouven M., Thomas M., Tichit M., 2013. Prospects from agroecology and industrial ecology for animal production in the 21st century. Animal 7, 1028–1043.

Fath, B.D., Scharler, U.M., Ulanowicz, R.E., Hannon, B., 2007. Ecological network analysis: network construction. Ecol Modell 208, 49–55.

Lau MK, Borrett SR, Baiser B, Gotelli NJ, Ellison AM, 2017. Ecological network metrics: opportunities for synthesis. Ecosphere 8:8.

Rufino, M.C., Hengsdijk, H., Verhagen, A., 2009. Analysing integration and diversity in agro-ecosystems by using indicators of network analysis. Nutr. Cycl. Agroecosyst. 84, 229–247.