Water Efficient Alternative Crops for Sustainable Agriculture along the Tarim Basin: A Comparison of the Economic Potentials of Apocynum pictum, Chinese Red Date and Cotton in Xinjiang, China
This study explores a paradigm of sustainable land use in the oases along the Tarim River of northwest China, where a fragile, semi-arid riparian ecosystem is being damaged by excessive land and water use for agriculture, especially for the growing of cotton. The reliance of agriculture on water-demanding cash crops in this region poses a grave threat to survival of the natural Tugai vegetation in the area and to the long-term sustainability of the region. We explored the hypothesis that the species Apocynum pictum (A. pictum), known as Lop-Kendir by locals, and the Chinese red date (Zyzyphus jujube) may act as sustainable crop substitutes for the region, thereby replacing the widely distributed cash crop of cotton that has high water demands. Therefore, we investigated current utilization and cost-revenue structure of these two alternative plants and compared the results to cotton. Three natural resource management types of A. pictum were both identified in the wild and cultivation, with cost-revenue analysis carried out for each. The results show that all three types of institutional arrangements of natural resources, which are namely open access, ranching and farming, were present in our study and at various levels for A. pictum. A. pictum farming costs 16,250.25 yuan/ha, generates 49,014.45 yuan/ha of revenue from raw materials and brings a profit of 32,764.2 yuan/ha, which is the highest of all three cash crops compared. The Chinese government encourages Chinese red date plantations with a “Grain for green” campaign in the Tarim Basin with this plant being more profitable than cotton, which could serve to diversify the region’s agriculture. We conclude that A. pictum offers opportunities for the restoration of vegetation in riparian ecosystems on salinized sites under the arid conditions of the Tarim Basin. Furthermore, it can serve as a viable land-use alternative to cotton for cash crop agriculture, as it may generate a certain income in the form of tea and fibers as well as fodder for livestock.