Diverse crop rotations improve soil health, yields and the environment

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A six-year field experiment in the northern China plains demonstrated that crop rotation diversification benefits long-term agricultural resilience and soil health.

The study, published in Nature Communications, shows that diversifying traditional grain monocultures (wheat, corn) with cash crops (sweet potatoes) and legumes (peanuts, soybeans) can help produce sustainable food. It turned out that it has the potential to become a model for practice.

The research collaboration was led by researchers from China Agricultural University, Hainan University and Wenzhou University in China, and was co-authored by Professor Kadambot Siddique, Director of the University of Western Australia’s Agricultural Research Institute.

Professor Siddique said that integrated farming systems with diverse crop rotations could lead to an increase in the use of synthetic pesticides (fertilizers and pesticides) that emit greenhouse gases (GHGs) and degrade the environment, and a loss of soil fertility due to intensification of single-crop production. He said it will help address the challenges.

Conceptual diagram of system integration from issues to results

“Producing more nutritious food and alleviating world hunger while protecting the environment is a key challenge for humanity,” Professor Siddique said.

The research team conducted a six-year field survey (2016-2022) in the northern plains of China. Crop production there is dominated by simple double-cropped winter wheat (Triticum aestivum L.) and summer maize (Zea Mays L.).

This study evaluated several diverse cropping systems (introducing sweet potato, peanut, and soybean rotations) in terms of food production, greenhouse gas balance, soil health benefits, and farmer income.

The researchers found that diversifying the rotation increased equivalent yield by up to 38%, reduced N2O emissions by 39%, and improved the system’s GHG balance by 88%.

Including legumes in crop rotations stimulated soil microbial activity, increasing soil organic carbon storage by 8% and enhancing soil health by 45%.

Professor Siddique said large-scale implementation of diverse cropping systems could increase overall grain production in the North China Plain by 32% and farmers’ incomes by 20%.

“Our findings will help establish more sustainable systems for maintaining or increasing grain and protein production, while reducing damage to the environment and soil ecosystems,” he said. “It has the potential to lead to agro-ecological zones.”

“Agriculture is a net emitter of greenhouse gases, but the integrated cropping system developed in this study offers an opportunity to move toward carbon neutrality while remaining profitable.

“These results from intensive food-producing regions could also provide guidance for countries and regions with similar agricultural environments, such as Australia, to follow on a larger scale.”

/University Release. This material from the original organization/author may be of a contemporary nature and has been edited for clarity, style, and length. Mirage.News does not take any institutional position or stance, and all views, positions, and conclusions expressed herein are solely those of the authors. Read the full text here.

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