The acceptance and adoption of sustainable arable farming strategies does not depend on agriculture alone. Agroecological innovations always affect the entire value chain, i.e. all processing stages, as well as consumers. Together with 25 actors including farmers, millers and bakers, the Germany CICS#5 within the framework of the IntercropVALUES project, is investigating and testing the advantages and adoption of wheat and pea intercrops within regional organic value chains.

Legumes in arable farming play a central role, particularly in organic farming systems. Legumes are essential for the nitrogen supply within crop rotations, the maintenance of soil fertility, the management of weeds and pathogens, as well as contributing to both human and animal nutrition. In addition, legumes provide valuable ecosystem services in arable farming such as the promotion of biodiversity by providing food for pollinating insects and, in the case of our CICS#5, by improving baking quality in wheat without the need for additional fertilizer inputs.

Picture above: harvested wheat and pea before seed separation (© Odette Weedon)

Diversity promotes stability

Grain legumes deliver additional positive effects when they are grown in mixtures, i.e. in mixed cultivation with other crop species. Diseases and pathogens are generally less able to spread in intercrops. Nutrient and water resources can be used more efficiently in intercrops by maximizing complementary resource use, as well as through resource sharing. Different resource requirements and plant and root architectures can complement each other and reduce competition between individual plants. Mixed cultivation also promotes the diversity of soil microorganisms. All these advantages make intercropping an important strategy for adaptation to climate change, the conservation of resources and promotion of biodiversity within agricultural ecosystems.

Picture above: a wheat and pea intercrop managed under an organic system. (© Odette Weedon)

For farmers, diversification in the field may also buffer economic risk. If one crop species in an intercrop does not yield well due to abiotic or biotic stress factors during the season, the other crop species may be less affected and may compensate for yield losses. Research on cereal and legume intercrops indicate that significant improvements in cereal grain quality parameters can be achieved e.g. higher protein content. The main reason for this is the fact that the legume is able to fix atmospheric nitrogen through a symbiotic relationship with soil rhizobia. As the cereal crop is sown at a lower density in the mixture in comparison to a cereal monoculture, this additional soil nitrogen is available for fewer individuals of the cereal crop as there is no competition from the legume for soil nitrogen. This strategy of improving cereal grain quality is of particular interest for organic farming systems, as the production of cereals with high baking quality is challenging due to slow mineralisation of organic nitrogen inputs, which are strongly dependent on the location and weather conditions.

Despite the many advantages of intercropping, especially with legumes, the proportion of land under mixed cropping in Germany and Europe remains low. There are many reasons for this. One important obstacle is the potential economic costs of the intercrop for the producer. Seed separation of two crop species after harvest – which is essential for food production – may potentially be too costly for many farmers and processors such as mills. In addition, the market for grain legumes for human consumption is still small and underdeveloped. Due to these challenges, intercrops are mainly cultivated for fodder purposes, as the harvested crop mixtures do not need to be separated for animal feed.

Challenging the monocultural paradigm

The German CICS#5 aims to address these aforementioned challenges by working together with farmers and stakeholders from the entire value chain to analyse the challenges of wheat and pea intercropping and improve adoption of this practice. The aim is to tackle processing barriers and create solutions and knowledge on the cultivation, milling and baking of wheat grown as an intercrop with pea. The German CIC#5 is a partnership between the University of Kassel, the organic baker’s association “Die Freien Bäcker” and “Atelier Ernährungswende”, as well as 25 project actors including 10 farmers, 5 mills and 10 bakers arranged within eight regional organic value chains across Germany. The focus of CICS#5 is the evaluation and optimisation of grain separation, improvement of baking quality, as well as the optimisation of milling and baking processes of wheat from an intercropped system. Although the main focus is on wheat, the CICS actors are also very interested in developing a market for the secondary crop of pea through new product development. For example, baker workshops will focus on the development of new bakery products with the addition of pea flour, which will be assessed not only in terms of baking properties, but in terms of their sensory characteristics.

Picture above: bread produced from wheat and pea flour and baked at the 5th International Bread Festival held in Rauris, Austria (https://www.die-freien-baecker.de/blog/detail/brotfest2023/) (© Odette Weedon).

In order to test the market and the acceptance of wheat grown in an intercropped system, the baked products will be marketed in two baking campaigns (spring 2025 and 2026), accompanied by marketing materials to inform consumers on the benefits of intercropping systems using this example of wheat and pea. The German CIC#5 hopes to provide concrete recommendations for the adoption of wheat-pea intercrops for every stage of the value chain, but also provide a blueprint for transdisciplinary practical research through this co-innovation case study.

This news item was written by Odette Weedon, University of Kassel.