Designing diversified crop rotations to advance sustainability: A method and an application

Zhengyuan Liang*, Zhan Xu, Jiali Cheng, Bowen Ma, Wen Feng Cong*, Chaochun Zhang, Fusuo Zhang, Wopke van der Werf, Jeroen C.J. Groot

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


Diversified crop rotations are considered key to solving sustainability issues with modern farming but trade-offs often occur among different sustainability objectives. It remains a challenge to design rotations that reach compromises across multiple sustainability domains. Here we propose a methodological framework for systematic design of compromise rotations in terms of a set of sustainability indicators, which for the first time combines a rotation generator model (ROTAT), Pareto-based decision-aid tools, and a multi-criteria characterization process. We exemplify this framework by exploring promising diversified rotations in terms of 11 sustainability indicators for Quzhou, a typical cereal-growing county in the North China Plain. ROTAT generated 3011 agronomically feasible rotations but none of them outperformed the currently dominant wheat-maize system in all indicators. Then 125 rotations (4 %) were selected as compromise rotations using the Pareto-based decision-aid methods. Finally, these compromise rotations were divided into eight clusters representing contrasting sustainability patterns, including two profitability-oriented, two nutrition-oriented, and two environment-oriented clusters, as well as two clusters that achieved balance across sustainability domains. We conclude that no single alternative rotation can solve all conflicting sustainability issues, but compromise alternatives could serve diverse stakeholder demands and provide well-planned options for future agricultural landscapes. The crop rotation design method showcased here could also be used in other specialized agricultural regions to inform stakeholders and policy-makers about possibilities and trade-offs when improving sustainability of crop production.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)532-544
Number of pages13
JournalSustainable Production and Consumption
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2023


  • Crop diversification
  • Greenhouse gas emission
  • Groundwater depletion
  • Human nutrition
  • Pareto optimality
  • Profitability


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