Diversified crop rotations enhance groundwater and economic sustainability of food production

Xiaolin Yang, Tammo S. Steenhuis, Kyle Frankel Davis, Wopke van der Werf, Coen J. Ritsema, Steven Pacenka, Fusuo Zhang, Kadambot H.M. Siddique, Taisheng Du

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Citations (Scopus)


Earth's water resources are critical for supporting livelihoods and food security but are being increasingly overexploited to support global agriculture. Diversifying cropping systems could potentially resolve unsustainable water use but trade-offs with other aspects of sustainability and food security have not yet been assessed. We performed a detailed analysis of 31 different field crop rotations conducted during 1990–2019 in the North China Plain, to assess the potential impact of crop diversification on actual evapotranspiration (ETa), changes in regional groundwater table, grain yield, economic output, and water use efficiency (WUE) and to identify configurations that can achieve co-benefits across multiple dimensions. We found that a combination of lowering the cropping index (i.e., harvest frequency), incorporating fallow periods, and introducing higher-value crops into the currently dominant winter wheat–summer maize double cropping system can reduce growing season ETa by as much as 31%, mitigate groundwater decline by 19% or more, and increased economic output and economic WUE by more than 11% and 3%, respectively. We also found that multiple diversified wheat-maize–based rotations—all with rotation lengths greater than 2 years—achieve co-benefits across all evaluated dimensions. This study provides new empirical evidence of the opportunities for diversified crop rotations to balance the multiple objectives of food production, sustainable groundwater use, and farmer profitability. Extending this solution to other water-stressed agricultural regions could be an effective strategy in achieving more sustainable food production system globally.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere311
JournalFood and Energy Security
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 9 Nov 2021


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