Closing yield gaps in China by empowering smallholder farmers

Journal name:
Nature
Volume:
537,
Pages:
671–674
Date published:
DOI:
doi:10.1038/nature19368
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Published online

Sustainably feeding the world’s growing population is a challenge1, 2, 3, and closing yield gaps (that is, differences between farmers’ yields and what are attainable for a given region)4, 5, 6 is a vital strategy to address this challenge3, 4, 7. The magnitude of yield gaps is particularly large in developing countries where smallholder farming dominates the agricultural landscape4, 7. Many factors and constraints interact to limit yields3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, and progress in problem-solving to bring about changes at the ground level is rare. Here we present an innovative approach for enabling smallholders to achieve yield and economic gains sustainably via the Science and Technology Backyard (STB) platform. STB involves agricultural scientists living in villages among farmers, advancing participatory innovation and technology transfer, and garnering public and private support. We identified multifaceted yield-limiting factors involving agronomic, infrastructural, and socioeconomic conditions. When these limitations and farmers’ concerns were addressed, the farmers adopted recommended management practices, thereby improving production outcomes. In one region in China, the five-year average yield increased from 67.9% of the attainable level to 97.0% among 71 leading farmers, and from 62.8% to 79.6% countywide (93,074 households); this was accompanied by resource and economic benefits.

At a glance

Figures

  1. A schematic illustration of the function of STB.
    Figure 1: A schematic illustration of the function of STB.

    STB is a hub that connects the scientific community with the farming community to facilitate information exchange and innovation. Science-based management technologies are brought by STB staff and discussed with leading farmers, the latter provide feedback which is then addressed, resulting in farm-applicable recommendations. Leading farmers test and adopt the recommended practices and extend them together with STB staff to other farmers. Through the hub, government and agri-businesses also engage and improve their services.

  2. Major factors contributing to yield gaps.
    Figure 2: Major factors contributing to yield gaps.

    These factors were identified through farmer survey (n = 150) and single-factor experiments (n varied from 3 to 9 depending on the individual factor, total 55) conducted in farmers’ fields through side-by-side comparisons of farmers’ practices versus science-based recommendations. Yellow bars on the left indicate percentage of farmers with management practices that do not conform to the scientific recommendations; green bars indicate the corresponding yield gap (detailed information and standard deviation in Extended Data Table 1). Note, yield gaps of individual factors derived from the single-factor experiments are not additive.

  3. Combined wheat and maize yields by leading farmers and county average compared to Quzhou Experimental Station, before and after (2008–2009) STB.
    Figure 3: Combined wheat and maize yields by leading farmers and county average compared to Quzhou Experimental Station, before and after (2008–2009) STB.

    Wheat and maize yields by leading farmers, green; county average, yellow (data from ref. 26); Quzhou Experimental Station, red. Error bars represent one standard deviation (see Methods for details). Percentage above green (or yellow) bar denotes yield gap between leading farmers (or county-average) and the Experimental Station. Number of leading-farmer participants changed from year to year; variability of their yields is presented in Supplementary Table 1. Also see Supplementary Table 3 for analysis of maize yield variation affected by weather.

  4. Distribution of STBs in China (left) and the location of Quzhou County as well as STB study areas in Quzhou (close-up map at right).
    Extended Data Fig. 1: Distribution of STBs in China (left) and the location of Quzhou County as well as STB study areas in Quzhou (close-up map at right).

    Each dot on the left map indicates an STB group at the county level; the number in the dots refers to the number of STBs in the county. Different colours refer to different cropping systems. The STBs presented in the close-up map at right are for wheat/maize rotation systems only. (Editor’s note: Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps.)

  5. Variation in farmers’ standard practices for wheat (n = 150) and maize (n = 145) in Quzhou County based on 2009 survey results.
    Extended Data Fig. 2: Variation in farmers’ standard practices for wheat (n = 150) and maize (n = 145) in Quzhou County based on 2009 survey results.

    a, Wheat variety selection. The light shade means farmers used seeds reserved from their own harvest. b, Wheat-sowing date. October 10th was set as 0 because it was the recommended sowing date. c, Wheat-seeding rate. d, N application for wheat. e, Top-dressing date for wheat. April 1st was set as 0 because it was the stem elongation stage. f, Maize variety selection. g, Sowing date of maize. June 10th was set as 0 because it was the recommended sowing date. h, Maize planting density. i, Maize-harvesting date Oct 1st was set as 0 because it was the recommended harvest date of maize. j, N application rate on maize.

Tables

  1. Practices and yields of single-factor experiments in farmers’ fields during 2009–2011
    Extended Data Table 1: Practices and yields of single-factor experiments in farmers’ fields during 2009–2011
  2. Characteristics of STB villages, neighbouring villages and control villages, surveys conducted in 2009 and 2012, respectively
    Extended Data Table 2: Characteristics of STB villages, neighbouring villages and control villages, surveys conducted in 2009 and 2012, respectively
  3. Knowledge, attitude, and access-to-information by farmers in STB villages as compared to neighbouring and control villages, before and after STB intervention (surveyed in 2009 and 2012)
    Extended Data Table 3: Knowledge, attitude, and access-to-information by farmers in STB villages as compared to neighbouring and control villages, before and after STB intervention (surveyed in 2009 and 2012)
  4. Recommended management practices initially formulated (left column) and revised after discussion with leading farmers
    Extended Data Table 4: Recommended management practices initially formulated (left column) and revised after discussion with leading farmers
  5. Comparison of yields, resource use efficiencies, and economic parameters at Quzhou Experimental Station, by leading farmers, and by farmers in STB villages, neighbouring villages, and control villages, 2012 data
    Extended Data Table 5: Comparison of yields, resource use efficiencies, and economic parameters at Quzhou Experimental Station, by leading farmers, and by farmers in STB villages, neighbouring villages, and control villages, 2012 data
  6. Description and photo-illustration of various outreach activities carried out by STB staff
    Extended Data Table 6: Description and photo-illustration of various outreach activities carried out by STB staff
  7. Adoption of recommended practices by farmers in STB, neighbouring villages, and control villages, based on survey results of 2009 (baseline) and 2012
    Extended Data Table 7: Adoption of recommended practices by farmers in STB, neighbouring villages, and control villages, based on survey results of 2009 (baseline) and 2012
  8. Statistics for Quzhou County during 2001–2014
    Extended Data Table 8: Statistics for Quzhou County during 2001–2014

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Author information

  1. These authors contributed equally to this work.

    • Weifeng Zhang &
    • Guoxin Cao

Affiliations

  1. College of Resources & Environmental Sciences, Key Laboratory of Plant-Soil Interactions, Ministry of Education, China Agricultural University, Beijing 100193, China.

    • Weifeng Zhang,
    • Guoxin Cao,
    • Xiaolin Li,
    • Hongyan Zhang,
    • Chong Wang,
    • Xinping Chen,
    • Zhenling Cui,
    • Jianbo Shen,
    • Rongfeng Jiang,
    • Guohua Mi,
    • Yuxin Miao &
    • Fusuo Zhang
  2. Institute of Resources & Environmental Sciences, Hebei Academy of Agriculture and Forestry Sciences, Shijiazhuang 050051, China.

    • Quanqing Liu
  3. Center for Animal Health and Productivity, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Kennett Square, Pennsylvania 19348, USA.

    • Zhengxia Dou

Contributions

F.Z., X.L. and W.Z. designed the research. G.C., H.Z., C.W., Q.L., X.C., Z.C., W.Z., J.S., R.J., G.M. and Y.M. conducted field experiments and ran the STB network. G.C. and W.Z. collected and analysed the data. W.Z., G.C. F.Z. and Z.D. wrote the manuscript.

Competing financial interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to:

Reviewer Information

Nature thanks K. Giller, M. van Ittersum and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Author details

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figures

  1. Extended Data Figure 1: Distribution of STBs in China (left) and the location of Quzhou County as well as STB study areas in Quzhou (close-up map at right). (177 KB)

    Each dot on the left map indicates an STB group at the county level; the number in the dots refers to the number of STBs in the county. Different colours refer to different cropping systems. The STBs presented in the close-up map at right are for wheat/maize rotation systems only. (Editor’s note: Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps.)

  2. Extended Data Figure 2: Variation in farmers’ standard practices for wheat (n = 150) and maize (n = 145) in Quzhou County based on 2009 survey results. (223 KB)

    a, Wheat variety selection. The light shade means farmers used seeds reserved from their own harvest. b, Wheat-sowing date. October 10th was set as 0 because it was the recommended sowing date. c, Wheat-seeding rate. d, N application for wheat. e, Top-dressing date for wheat. April 1st was set as 0 because it was the stem elongation stage. f, Maize variety selection. g, Sowing date of maize. June 10th was set as 0 because it was the recommended sowing date. h, Maize planting density. i, Maize-harvesting date Oct 1st was set as 0 because it was the recommended harvest date of maize. j, N application rate on maize.

Extended Data Tables

  1. Extended Data Table 1: Practices and yields of single-factor experiments in farmers’ fields during 2009–2011 (264 KB)
  2. Extended Data Table 2: Characteristics of STB villages, neighbouring villages and control villages, surveys conducted in 2009 and 2012, respectively (162 KB)
  3. Extended Data Table 3: Knowledge, attitude, and access-to-information by farmers in STB villages as compared to neighbouring and control villages, before and after STB intervention (surveyed in 2009 and 2012) (191 KB)
  4. Extended Data Table 4: Recommended management practices initially formulated (left column) and revised after discussion with leading farmers (215 KB)
  5. Extended Data Table 5: Comparison of yields, resource use efficiencies, and economic parameters at Quzhou Experimental Station, by leading farmers, and by farmers in STB villages, neighbouring villages, and control villages, 2012 data (246 KB)
  6. Extended Data Table 6: Description and photo-illustration of various outreach activities carried out by STB staff (776 KB)
  7. Extended Data Table 7: Adoption of recommended practices by farmers in STB, neighbouring villages, and control villages, based on survey results of 2009 (baseline) and 2012 (326 KB)
  8. Extended Data Table 8: Statistics for Quzhou County during 2001–2014 (133 KB)

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. Supplementary Information (287 KB)

    This file contains Supplementary Tables 1-5, a Supplementary Discussion and additional references.

Additional data