Global demand for liquorice plant continues to grow. While this is putting pressure on the wild-growing plant, cultivation is helping in its protection.
Uzbekistan is a boot-shaped landlocked country, located in the steppes of Central Asia, most of which has a desert or semi-arid climate. Largely ignored by the world’s media, it is nevertheless home to an encouraging initiative that demonstrates how land that has been ruined by misguided agricultural techniques can later be saved and put back into circulation.
From the edge of the Pamir Mountains in Afghanistan, the Amu Darya river runs west across Central Asia for about 2,500 kilometres. To some, it is better-known by its legendary name from antiquity, the Oxus. In Uzbekistan’s western corner, the Amu Darya turns north into the Aral Sea. When the country belonged to the Soviet Union during the Cold War era, the river’s water was diverted for large-scale irrigation in a huge centralised agricultural project involving cotton and wheat.
As a result of poorly-designed irrigation systems without sufficient drainage, the land became degraded, with salinity being the major challenge. Eventually about 30,000 hectares in the region became unusable and were abandoned. To rectify this problem via improving drainage is unworkably expensive, costing up to USD2,500 (AUD3,400) per hectare per year.
Salt-tolerant plants: a better way
A more effective direction to pursue is the cultivation of salt-tolerant crops, with sorghum, pearl millet, and liquorice plant all good choices. Of these three, liquorice is particularly valuable due to its ability to improve soil quality. The cost of growing liquorice is only USD50 (AUD67) per hectare per year, and is offset by income from selling the crop. Liquorice plant is a perennial shrub growing up to 1.5 metres high, and is found growing wild in Central Asia. Even more significantly, Uzbekistan has a history of liquorice cultivation going back to the early 1900s.
Liquorice plant is not only salt-tolerant, but it has been observed that the more salty the soil, the better it grows. It also has the advantage of being cold-tolerant in an extreme continental climate where the winter temperature can go down as low as minus 20° Celsius. Its prolific roots grow deep, reaching down to 5 metres or more. These have the benefit of lowering the groundwater level, and encourage the downward movement of surface salts to a depth where they no longer diminish yields. At the end of a 3-4 year growing cycle, the roots are harvested.
Other benefits of liquorice plant
Besides the root, liquorice plant grows green foliage that can be harvested as animal fodder and contains twice as much protein as alfalfa.
In Uzbekistan, liquorice is commonly seen as a reclamation crop, opening up the land to environmentally responsible cotton and wheat farming. The idea of using it for this purpose originated during the early 2000s, when researchers at Uzbekistan’s Gulistan State University partnered with the International Water Management Institute to conduct trials. On liquorice plots, at the end of 4 years the water table had dropped below what was seen as the critical mark of 2.5 metres. Rotating it with cotton and wheat respectively doubled and trebled the yield of these two crops.
Reasons for caution
Liquorice grows an extensive root system and has the characteristics of an invasive weed. Additionally, the government is wary about uncontrolled liquorice expansion resulting in too much land being withdrawn from growing staple grains such as wheat.
Global demand for liquorice continues to grow. While this is putting pressure on the wild-growing plant, cultivation is helping in its protection. Up until now, the benefits of liquorice in Uzbekistan have typically been relayed from farmer to farmer in a grassroots fashion. From a tiny starting point, hundreds of hectares are now devoted to growing the aromatic root. A domestic liquorice processing industry is now being established, with the crop being used for a diverse range of end purposes including medicines, sweets, foods, alcohol, and even cosmetics.
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