How licorice can make salt-affected lands healthier and farmers richer

Date: 15.02.2015.

Licorice helps to decrease the groundwater level, reduce soil salinity and improve fertility. For example, trials in Сentral Kyzylkum, Uzbekistan, have shown that licorice does well in saline conditions and can be highly valuable as livestock feed. Photo by Kristina Toderich.

Salt-induced land degradation is a big problem in Central Asia, a region of mostly arid and semi-arid lands. According to the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the World Bank, it causes losses of well over 2bn USD a year in the region. ADB estimates that agricultural yields have fallen by 20-30 per cent due to land degradation across the region since independence in the early 1990s. Declining fertility of arable lands makes this problem more pronounced. It is little wonder, then, that reclaiming salt-ridden areas is again top of the research and political agenda. Once undervalued and abandoned, these lands can no longer be a forgotten, neglected asset.

Restoring salt-affected lands is, however, expensive. And there has not been much certainty about costs and benefits of such effort. But a growing body of research, including a recent study by Qadir et al (see here), is making out a strong case for action. Their findings show that it can be cost-effective to invest in sustainable land management. Preventing land degradation and restoring degraded lands would lead to less cost than letting land degradation continue. Qadir et al argue that depending on a number of factors, doing nothing may result in losses of up to 69 per cent. And this estimate does not include implications like employment losses, an increase in human and animal health problems, and associated environmental costs as these lands emit more carbon and thus contribute to climate change.

Scientists point out that there are a number of ways to fight soil degradation and salinization, that is, accumulation of water-soluble salts in the soil (see here). One is to cultivate plants that help to rehabilitate abandoned salt-affected lands and rangelands in the region. It is an economical solution which would benefit the environment and, above all, rural households and farmers. Studies show that crops like sorghum, pearl millet and licorice do quite well in saline conditions (see here). And certain trees and shrubs can be used as biological pumps to lower elevated groundwater levels in waterlogged areas.

Licorice, however, merits special attention for a few reasons. First, there is scientific evidence that it helps to decrease the groundwater level, reduce soil salinity and improve fertility. In a recent study on biological effects of the crop, a team of scientists from the National University of Uzbekistan and the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) found that licorice enriches soil with organic matter, improves its physical and chemical composition, and increases biological activity.

Second, this crop has a long history of use and production in Central Asia. It is reported that the American firm MacAndrews and Forbes set up a plant in Turkmenistan in 1906 and the plant has been in continuous production ever since (see here). Furthermore, there is also considerable research in favour of using licorice in salt-affected lands. In particular in Uzbekistan some of this research dates back to the 1960s. However, recent efforts started in the country in the late 1990s and early 2000s and are more comprehensive. For example, scientists at Gulistan State University, Uzbekistan, carried out a study between 1999 and 2003 in medium- and heavily-saline lands in Bayavut district of Syrdarya Region, where around 90 per cent of the lands are salt-affected to varying degrees. They demonstrated that cotton could be grown again in these areas after five years of licorice cultivation. The success of this study led to an ADB-funded project called 'Bright spots', which ran from 2005 to 2008. The later study was more extensive and also involved researchers from IWMI, a member of the Dryland Systems Research Program and the CGIAR consortium operating in Central Asia and the Caucasus. For the past ten years, IWMI researchers have taken the lead and worked closely with Gulistan State University and the National University of Uzbekistan on an inter-disciplinary initiative on licorice. Of late other members of the CGIAR consortium like the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), and the Central Asia and the Caucasus Association of Agricultural Research Institutions (CACAARI) have also joined in. As part of the most recent initiative, IWMI scientists have also conducted two separate studies using satellite images to map salt-affected and native licorice-growing areas, analyze the dynamics of salinization in Syrdarya Region and northwestern Karakalpakstan. This data helps to better understand where licorice is and could be grown in Uzbekistan. More than 30 scientists, farmers, policymakers and donors met in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in December 2014 to present and discuss the results of this multi-year work.

Third, growing global demand may outstrip supply as most of the licorice on the market is currently wild in origin. Licorice extract is used worldwide in medicines, candy, food, alcohol and cosmetics. It is an ingredient in more than 100 drugs. In a recent study IFPRI researchers argue that Uzbekistan, a major exporter in the region, can increase licorice shipments to China, where demand has steadily grown since 2001 and is forecast to continue in next decade due to tightened regulations on domestic supply and incentives on imports (see here). In 2011 China imported 10,659 tons of licorice roots, a 123-per-cent increase on 2010. Of this, about 80 per cent came from Central Asia. Uzbekistan exported 2281.05 tons of licorice roots to China in 2010, accounting for 47.74 per cent of China's total import. In 2012 China imported dried roots worth 9.9m USD from Uzbekistan. Overall, the import of licorice extract from Uzbekistan to China increased 65 times in terms of value, and 30 times in volume between 2007 and 2011. By some estimates, over 70 per cent of licorice grown and processed in Uzbekistan is exported abroad, including Germany, France and South Korea.

Fourth, there is a thriving domestic market for licorice. The number of licorice processing enterprises is growing. According to the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Uzbekistan, more than 30 companies are involved in licorice production across the country. Two of the largest businesses are Kegeyli-Boyan LLC, based in Kegeyli district, Karakalpakstan, and AgroBioKimyo LLC in Qibray district. More foreign investment is coming in too. In recent years a number of joint ventures have sprung up. For example, the Uzbek-Chinese joint venture Lanextract and the Uzbek-German joint venture Licoroots are working at full capacity in Chimbay district of Karakalpakstan (see here). Chinese companies like the Chinese Holley Company, Beijing Shizhen Chinese Medicine Technology Ltd, and Xinjiang Zhonglin Bio-tech Ltd have also initiated investment in Uzbekistan for licorice cultivation or processing. In July 2013 an entrepreneur, who cultivates licorice roots in Syrdarya Region, secured investment from the UAE and India to set up a joint venture Syrdarya licorice extract LLC. The plant has the capacity of 3,600 tons per year, which is expected to reach 6,000 tons per year in the near future. Around 70 people work at the plant and 500 ha of abandoned lands are used for licorice production.

There is, however, a downside to this boom. In a study in 2014, supported by CACAARI, IFPRI researchers found that licorice is cultivated in relatively small areas in Uzbekistan. This means that collectors and farmers harvest mostly wild licorice. There are some regulations on harvesting, which are aimed at preventing the depletion of natural licorice reserves and harm to the environment. However, strong demand for the plant brings into question how sustainable and manageable current practices are. There has been a growing interest in cultivation of licorice in Uzbekistan. And the government of Uzbekistan has been keen to support licorice production while protecting the environment. A number of government decrees have been adopted to that effect. For example, the Cabinet of Ministers of Uzbekistan passed a decree in March 2013 on measures to improve and support organizations involved in processing licorice. The decree simplifies the process of obtaining licenses for licorice collection. Now companies and individuals can harvest licorice without obtaining a special license as long as they have contracts with enterprises in Uzbekistan that process and produce the root extract.

But cultivation is not widespread yet as some challenges remain. Scientists believe that lack of knowledge, technologies and, above all, financing put a drag on progress. First, it is necessary to improve seed supply. Seeds are currently collected in the wild. So their quality and quantity often do not meet market needs. Second, licorice farmers need technical support. Collectors lament that they don't know all agro-technologies and lack special harvesting equipment. Everything from choosing suitable land to sowing to harvesting requires good knowledge and skills. Third, financing should be more easily available for licorice cultivation. As it takes at least 2-3 years before licorice can be harvested, small-scale farmers find it hard to keep putting effort and money into cultivation. Without access to financing, cultivation can hardly expand. Dr Inna Rudenko, a consultant with IWMI, says that farmers have long known about the economic feasibility of cultivating licorice. But they are put off by the fact that profits come only after three years. She thinks that government support in helping farmers to get unsecured and low-interest loans could boost interest in cultivation. Studies show that investments are usually recouped after three years and farmers make profit afterwards.

Growing licorice in salt-affected lands is promising. But it is not a cure-all. And it cannot be a substitute for sustainable land and water management practices. Yet it can serve as an additional interim measure towards effective salinity management in the region. The economic and social benefits of cultivating licorice are substantial. This would create extra employment and income opportunities for rural households, a goal shared by government and international organizations. Licorice is known for its sweet roots. Perhaps these roots one day could make the lives of people in salt-affected lands a little sweeter.

See also