Achieving sustainable crop management: A holistic approach to crop competitiveness assessment and structure optimization with dual natural-social environmental impacts

Shimeng Ma, Coen J. Ritsema, Sufen Wang*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


CONTEXT: Improving the spatial pattern of agricultural systems has become a promising approach for enhancing agricultural productivity and sustainability. However, previous studies have often focused on the influence of natural factors on crop distribution, ignoring factors such as human activities, socio-economic level and ecological environment. OBJECTIVES: This study aims to investigate the influence of natural factors and social environmental drivers on the optimal pattern of multiple crops and evaluate the potential of optimal patterns to enhance agricultural productivity and sustainability. METHODS: Here, we present a multi-criteria approach integrating natural and social environment system factors and set up three assessment scenarios: crop growth suitability (CGS), crop planting suitability (CPS), and crop planting competitiveness (CPC). Applying this approach to the Shiyang River basin in China as a case study, we assessed the suitability and competitiveness of single crops. To maximize agriculture competitiveness, we optimized the structure of the multi-crop system, and a method was proposed to identify highly suitable intercropping areas using crop competitiveness conflicts. Regional crop water consumption, water productivity, and economic benefits were calculated to analyze the potential for agricultural intensification under different optimization patterns. RESULTS AND CONCLUSIONS: We found that the weights of four categories factors of location, socio-economic conditions, productivity, and environment protection accounted for 26.9%, 7.5%, 13.7%, and 4.5%, respectively, and the weight of social environmental influence indicators had accounted for about 43.5%, which cannot be ignored. The distribution area above moderate suitability (L2) in the CPS and CPC scenarios was about 7.92% - 30.03% and 6.14% - 26.4% higher than the CGS scenario, respectively. Social environmental factors are important to consider in assessing the suitability of crops. From the spatial structure, three optimization patterns all suggested increasing the planting proportion of wheat and potato in the future. The optimization patterns in CPC scenario could reduce total crop water demand by 91.86 to 175.77 million cubic meters compared with 2020 while showing great potential to improve crop water productivity and net output per cubic meter of water. Furthermore, we offered recommendations for the layouts of common intercropping systems in Northwest China based on the proposed method for identifying high suitability zones. SIGNIFICANCE: This study emphasizes the importance of considering multiple environments to accurately assess crop suitability and achieve sustainable agricultural. The results could provide useful insights for managing and optimizing diverse planting systems, addressing growing concerns surrounding food and water security in resource-constrained regions.

Original languageEnglish
Article number103968
JournalAgricultural Systems
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2024


  • Agricultural intensification potential
  • Competitiveness assessment
  • Multi-criteria decision-making
  • Social environmental drivers
  • Sustainable pattern


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