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.
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We thank P. M. Vitousek, P. A. Matson, P. Christian, T. H. Misselbrook, G. P. Robertson, D. R. Chadwick, I. Ortiz-Monasterio, X.J. Liu and J. D. Toth for their comments/editing assistance. We thank Q. F. Meng, D. J. Lu, P. Yan, X. Q. Jiao and M. L. Guo for joint field experiment and data analysis. Many individuals were involved in the STB Network in Quzhou and elsewhere in China. This work was sponsored by the China 973 Program (Grant 2015CB150405), the Innovative Group Grant of the Natural Science Foundation of China (Grant 31421092), the Special Fund for Agro Scientific Research in the Public Interest (Grant 201203079), and the Program for New Century Excellent Talents in University (Grant 2016QC125).
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
Nature thanks K. Giller, M. van Ittersum and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.
Extended data figures and tables
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).
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.)
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.
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.
This file contains Supplementary Tables 1-5, a Supplementary Discussion and additional references. (PDF 287 kb)
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Zhang, W., Cao, G., Li, X. et al. Closing yield gaps in China by empowering smallholder farmers. Nature 537, 671–674 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature19368
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