indeed apply elsewhere. For example, insecticidal properties of the
neem plant, recorded in ancient Sanskrit writings in India, have
proven useful in Niger and Togo in Africa, where neem trees are also
abundant. The leaves, and especially extracts from the seeds, have
contributed to preserving stored grain there and to protecting standing crops (Warren, 1991). In the United States, many scientists are
inspired by indigenous examples. For example, an American version
of intercropping – mixing peanuts (legume), watermelon (shade
cover), and okra (insecticidal deterrence) – was studied recently at
Texas A&M University (2017), with positive results. Of course,
their selection of species was just informed guesswork, and further
results underscored that combining other species was less effective.
The study also highlighted the problems of scale. The method may
be limited to moderate-size garden-type farms. Other research on
intercropping continues at numerous institutions (Wright, 2015;
Bybee-Finley et al., 2016). At the Columbia Basin Agricultural
Research Center in Oregon, researchers echo the optimism, while
emphasizing the need for adaptation. Intercropping farmers in
the United States might alternate crops in the familiar long
straight rows, so as to facilitate mechanization (Machado, 2009).
It may be ironic that even when indigenous farming methods
are adopted, scientists still need substantial additional research,
but now the local context is a “modern” one.
Ultimately, indigenous farming practices, despite being developed in and adapted to local contexts, can provide models even
for “modern” scientists. The indigenous approaches exemplify how
science may work effectively even without “shiny” labs.
Bentley, J. W. (1989). What farmers don’t know can’t help them: the
strengths and weaknesses of indigenous technical knowledge in
Honduras. Agriculture and Human Values, 6( 3), 25–31.
Bybee-Finley, K.A., Mirskyb, S.B. & Ryana, M.R. (2016). Functional diversity
in summer annual grass and legume intercrops in the northeastern
united states. Crop Science, 56, 2775–2790.
Creager, A.N.H., Lunbeck, E. & Wise, M.N. (Eds.). (2007). Science without
Laws: Model Systems, Cases, Exemplary Narratives. Durham, NC: Duke
De Walt, B.R. (1994). Using indigenous knowledge to improve agriculture
and natural resource management. Human Organization, 53, 123–131.
Diamond, J. (1987). The worst mistake in the history of the human race.
Discover (May), 64–66.
González, R.J. (2001). Zapotec Science: Farming and Food in the Northern
Sierra of Oaxaca. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Jenkins, M. (2017). Maya gold. Nature Conservancy Magazine (July), 28–39.
Machado, S. (2009). Does intercropping have a role in modern agriculture?
Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, 55( 2), 55–57.
Penniman, L. (2015). Four ways Mexico’s indigenous farmers are practicing
the agriculture of the future. YES!Magazine. https://www.yesmagazine.
Perroni, E. (2017). Five indigenous farming practices enhancing food
security. Food Tank. https://foodtank.com/news/2017/08/celebrating-
Prakash, S. (2002). Using indigenous knowledge to raise agricultural
productivity. IK Notes 45. Washington, DC: World Bank.
Pulido, J.S. & Bocco, G. (2003). The traditional farming system of a Mexican
indigenous community: the case of Nuevo San Juan Parangaricutiro,
Michoacán, Mexico. Geoderma, 111, 249–265.
Texas A&M University (2017). Intercroppingboostsvegetableproduction.ht tps://
Warren, D.M. (1991). Using indigenous knowledge in agricultural development.
World Bank Discussion Paper No. 127. Washington, DC: World Bank.
Wright, A. (2015). Intercropping for ecological and economic efficiency in
agriculture. Public Library of Science. https://phys.org/news/2015-10-
DOUGLAS ALLCHIN is a historian and philosopher of science and science
educator. He is author of Teaching the Nature of Science: Perspectives and
Resources (2013) and Sacred Bovines: The Ironies of Misplaced
Assumptions in Biology (2017), based on essays from this column.