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Closing yield gaps in China by empowering smallholder farmers


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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Figure 1: A schematic illustration of the function of STB.
Figure 2: Major factors contributing to yield gaps.
Figure 3: Combined wheat and maize yields by leading farmers and county average compared to Quzhou Experimental Station, before and after (2008–2009) STB.


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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).

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Authors and Affiliations



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.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Fusuo Zhang.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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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.

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.

Extended Data Table 1 Practices and yields of single-factor experiments in farmers’ fields during 2009–2011
Extended Data Table 2 Characteristics of STB villages, neighbouring villages and control villages, surveys conducted in 2009 and 2012, respectively
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)
Extended Data Table 4 Recommended management practices initially formulated (left column) and revised after discussion with leading farmers
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
Extended Data Table 6 Description and photo-illustration of various outreach activities carried out by STB staff
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
Extended Data Table 8 Statistics for Quzhou County during 2001–2014

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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).

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