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Long-term increased grain yield and soil fertility from intercropping


Population and income growth are increasing global food demand at a time when a third of the world’s agricultural soils are degraded and climate variability threatens the sustainability of food production. Intercropping, the practice of growing two or more spatially intermingled crops, often increases yields, but whether such yield increases, their stability and soil fertility can be sustained over time remains unclear. Using four long-term (10–16 years) experiments on soils of differing fertility, we found that grain yields in intercropped systems were on average 22% greater than in matched monocultures and had greater year-to-year stability. Moreover, relative to monocultures, yield benefits of intercropping increased through time, suggesting that intercropping may increase soil fertility via observed increases in soil organic matter, total nitrogen and macro-aggregates when comparing intercropped with monoculture soils. Our results suggest that wider adoption of intercropping could increase both crop production and its long-term sustainability.

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Fig. 1: Average grain yield and its temporal trends comparing monoculture and intercropping systems in equal-fertilization and optimal-fertilization experiments from 2003/2009 to 2018.
Fig. 2: Average temporal stability of yields for intercropping and their respective sole cropping across all crop combinations and fertilization treatments in equal-fertilization and optimal-fertilization experiments from 2003/2009 to 2018.
Fig. 3: Soil large macro-aggregates comparing monoculture and intercropping systems in equal-fertilization and optimal-fertilization experiments.
Fig. 4: Relative changes of soil chemical properties for intercropping compared with corresponding monocultures in equal-fertilization and optimal-fertilization experiments.

Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available in Supplementary Data 1 and from the corresponding author upon request. Source data are provided with this paper.

Code availability

The custom code generated for this study is available in the Supplementary Information and from the corresponding author upon request.


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We thank all members involved in the maintenance of the long-term field experiments. We also thank H. Xu (Hebei Agricultural University) for advice on yield detrending method and X. Li (CSIRO Agriculture and Food) for assistance on data analysis and visualization. This work was supported financially by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (31430014), the National Key Research and Development Program of China (2016YFD0300202) and the National Basic Research Program of China (973 Program) (2011CB100405). R.M.C. thanks the National Science Foundation EPSCoR Cooperative Agreement OIA-1757351 for partial support.

Author information




L.L., X.-F.L., Z.-G.W., J.-H.S., X.-G.B. and S.-C.Y. designed the research; X.-F.L., Z.-G.W., X.-G.B., J.-H.S., S.-C.Y., P.W, C.-B.W., J.-P.W., X.-R.L., X.-L.T, Yu Wang, J.-P.L., Yan Wang, H.-Y.X., P.-P.M., X.-F.W., J.-H.Z., R.-P.Y., W.-P.Z., Z.-X.C., L.-G.G. and L.L. performed research; X.-F.L., Z.-G.W., R.-P.Y. and L.L. analysed the data; and X.-F.L., Z.-G.W., R.M.C., D.T. and L.L. wrote the paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Long Li.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information Nature Sustainability thanks Wen-Feng Cong, Matthew Ryan and Christian Schöb for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figs. 1–3 and Tables 1–4.

Reporting Summary

Supplementary Data 1

Statistical source data for Supplementary Figs. 2 and 3.

Source data

Source Data Fig. 1

Statistical source data for Fig. 1.

Source Data Fig. 2

Statistical source data for Fig. 2.

Source Data Fig. 3

Statistical source data for Fig. 3.

Source Data Fig. 4

Statistical source data for Fig. 4.

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Li, XF., Wang, ZG., Bao, XG. et al. Long-term increased grain yield and soil fertility from intercropping. Nat Sustain (2021).

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