What Are Diversified Farming Systems?

Diversified farming systems are a set of methods and tools developed to produce food sustainably by leveraging ecological diversity at plot, field, and landscape scales. Around the world, DFS depend on diverse cultures, practices, and governance structures to support these locally-adapted management systems. By supporting a complex fabric of natural and human ecologies, DFS allow critical ecosystem services – like pollination and pest control – to be generated and regenerated within the agroecosystem, aided by the human knowledge to sustain those processes.

While there is no single template for “DFS,” they share a common focus on local production, agro-ecological and local knowledge, and whole systems approaches to agriculture, based on promoting ecological diversity and ecosystem services from field to landscape scales.

For example, in the crop field, polycultures (multiple crops and/or varieties) and integration of fish or livestock permit more efficient use of nutrients. Around the field, hedgerows or live fences provide habitat for beneficial insects that control pests and provide pollination. In the surrounding landscape, wild or partly-wild patches of pasture, meadow, woodlots, forests, marshes, streams, and lakes support livestock and wildlife, provide flood control and forest products, and improve water quality.

Diversified farming systems and agroecological approaches can support smallholder livelihoods and reduce hunger and poverty in both rural and urban communities. Diversified agriculture is critical to feed the world population reliably and in perpetuity while mitigating climate change and avoiding a collapse of the ecological systems on which human survival depends. The ultimate goal of the new DFS center, as a research hub at UC Berkeley for studying this multi-scale, systems-based agriculture, is to help create a resilient, socially just, and secure global food system.

The Need to Diversify Food Systems

“How to feed the planet” is an increasingly urgent concern for people the world over, brought into relief against a backdrop of mounting social and environmental challenges. Current population and consumption trends are increasing the pressure on Earth’s finite natural resources.

At the same time, climate change, and declining access to oil, water, land, and nutrients, will interact in unpredictable ways, potentially undermining agriculture as we know it.

Ironically, existing agriculture – large-scale, industrial, and monoculture – is already undermining itself, and much else besides, by eroding soils, polluting waterways, creating oceanic dead zones, destroying biodiverse habitats, and contributing to global warming.

It is often stated that the global demand for food will double by 2050, fueling concerns about how we will “feed the world”. This calculation assumes that current trends in population, consumption (i.e the demand for meat and luxury products), and food waste will continue unabated into the future.

However, it is also now better understood that hunger and malnutrition are problems of access, distribution, power, and poverty. These problems cannot be solved by focusing solely on expanding food production, but must instead focus on the root causes of poverty and hunger. Thus, these challenges require greater insight into the large-scale patterns and processes of food production, distribution, and consumption (“food systems”), and the political and economic contexts in which these activities occur. In turn, these challenges require the search for viable alternatives – how can food systems that are ecologically and socially diverse contribute to overcome hunger and poverty?

The Center for DFS, as a hub of research at UC Berkeley, includes research efforts up and down the food chain, and involves students and faculty across the range of natural and social sciences, from ecology, energy studies, chemistry, and genetics to geography, anthropology, history, political ecology, economics, sociology, and more. The Center for DFSenables new interdisciplinary collaborations, and aims to inspire creative new thinking about the challenges of making food systems equitable and sustainable. By understanding how diversified farming systems work, and how to achieve them, our long-term goal is at once ambitious and eminently overdue: to help create a resilient, socially just, and secure global food system.

Diversified Farming Systems (DFS) may offer a way out of this paradox. With their focus on local production, agro-ecological and local knowledge, and whole systems approaches to farming, DFS could reduce both the environmental and social costs associated with industrialized agriculture.


Limited Resources: Land, water, and energy are at or near capacity for supporting the agricultural systems on which the world’s food supply depends.

Climate Change: As rainfall patterns and temperatures shift worldwide due to climate change, industrial agriculture will face additional challenges: unpredictable weather means unpredictable harvests.

Population Growth: The world’s population is expected to grow by more than two billion people over the next 30 years, to nine billion.

Consumption: 36% of the world’s crops now feed livestock rather than people, but only about 10% of those calories end up in the human diet. Emerging economies are consuming more meats and processed foods each year. Thirty to forty percent of crops produced are wasted due to post-harvest or post-consumer losses.

If population, consumption and food waste trends continue unabated, demand for global food production could potentially grow by 70-100% by 2050. However, reducing population growth, eating lower on the food chain, and minimizing food waste could reduce the need to grow our food supply.

Modern agricultural methods:

  • Rely on increasingly scarce resources, including fresh water and fossil fuels.
  • Deplete soils much faster than they can be restored through natural processes.
  • Need increasing amounts of fertilizer to sustain current yields.
  • Release a wide array of toxic chemicals into the environment in an effort to control crop pests and diseases.
  • Clear and convert habitat into greatly simplified fields to attain higher yields and efficiencies.
  • Encourage the atrophy of farmer knowledge of ecological and soil conditions on farms.
  • Depend on a smaller and smaller set of seeds, crops, and livestock for mass production, weakening the resilience of farm systems in the face of environmental change.
  • Rely on a single species, the honeybee, to pollinate the majority of crop species, but the honey bee is suffering massive colony losses around the world.


We need to identify and create sustainable agricultural solutions for present and future generations.

Through diversified farming methods, we can create an agroecosystem that supports natural ecological processes and thus provides critical ecosystem services to agriculture: soil formation, nitrogen fixation, efficient nutrient cycling and water use, pollination and pest control. Diversified farming methods are more likely to promote adaptation to changing climate than industrial methods.

The majority of people living in extreme poverty with chronic hunger are small farmers in rural and, increasingly, peri-urban areas. Diversified farming can support smallholder agriculture, and provide secure supplies of food for the most needy. Diversified agriculture can help people to feed themselves, and thus help to “feed the world” in far more sustainable and just ways.

Examples of Diversified Farming Systems

Through the use of a suite of farming practices, DFS promote functional biodiversity that provides critical inputs to agriculture – building soil fertility, cycling nutrients and water, and supporting beneficial insects that control pests and pollinate crops.

These practices include planting many crop varieties in a single field; incorporating trees, livestock, or aquaculture; rotating crops; planting hedgerows and riparian buffers; and conserving natural areas in the landscapes around the farm. By supporting a rich fabric of habitats and species from plot to field to landscape scale, DFS allow critical ecosystem services – from pollination and pest control to nutrient cycling– to be generated and regenerated within the ecosystem, forming the basis for sustainability.

Socially, DFS depend on diverse cultures, practices, and governance structures to support management practices adapted to the local environment. In many ways, this kind of local adaptation has taken place since the dawn of agriculture, as humans, plants, and animals have co-evolved in the environment, with farmers gradually shaping the evolution of what we now call food. So it’s not surprising that many DFS have their roots (literally) in traditional knowledge accumulated over millennia.

For example, in the milpa system in Mesoamerica, farmers cycle intercropped plantings of maize, beans, and squash with fallow periods to allow their land to recuperate.

On the other hand, some DFS are quite new, created recently through targeted agroecological studies designed to solve specific problems. The push-pull system for maize agriculture in Kenya, for example, is an ingenious method for controlling maize stemborer moths by intercropping grasses that encourage moths to lay their eggs in the grasses, instead of in the maize.

At the Center for DFS, we seek to study, preserve, cultivate and advance this type of human knowledge and practice – whether ancient or modern, discovered, re-discovered, or there-all-along – as it is the intellectual base on which the ongoing evolution of farming depends.