Pursuing sustainable productivity with millions of smallholder farmers

Abstract

Sustainably feeding a growing population is a grand challenge1,2,3, and one that is particularly difficult in regions that are dominated by smallholder farming. Despite local successes4,5,6,7,8, mobilizing vast smallholder communities with science- and evidence-based management practices to simultaneously address production and pollution problems has been infeasible. Here we report the outcome of concerted efforts in engaging millions of Chinese smallholder farmers to adopt enhanced management practices for greater yield and environmental performance. First, we conducted field trials across China’s major agroecological zones to develop locally applicable recommendations using a comprehensive decision-support program. Engaging farmers to adopt those recommendations involved the collaboration of a core network of 1,152 researchers with numerous extension agents and agribusiness personnel. From 2005 to 2015, about 20.9 million farmers in 452 counties adopted enhanced management practices in fields with a total of 37.7 million cumulative hectares over the years. Average yields (maize, rice and wheat) increased by 10.8–11.5%, generating a net grain output of 33 million tonnes (Mt). At the same time, application of nitrogen decreased by 14.7–18.1%, saving 1.2 Mt of nitrogen fertilizers. The increased grain output and decreased nitrogen fertilizer use were equivalent to US$12.2 billion. Estimated reactive nitrogen losses averaged 4.5–4.7 kg nitrogen per Megagram (Mg) with the intervention compared to 6.0–6.4 kg nitrogen per Mg without. Greenhouse gas emissions were 328 kg, 812 kg and 434 kg CO2 equivalent per Mg of maize, rice and wheat produced, respectively, compared to 422 kg, 941 kg and 549 kg CO2 equivalent per Mg without the intervention. On the basis of a large-scale survey (8.6 million farmer participants) and scenario analyses, we further demonstrate the potential impacts of implementing the enhanced management practices on China’s food security and sustainability outlook.

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Figure 1: Production and environmental performance with ISSM-based intervention.
Figure 2: The national campaign network.
Figure 3: National performance scores based on surveys of farmers during 2005–2014 for maize, rice and wheat.

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Acknowledgements

We acknowledge all those who provided local assistance or technical help during the national campaign. We also thank J. D. Toth at the University of Pennsylvania for editing assistance. This work was financially supported by the Chinese National Basic Research Program (2015CB150400), the Innovative Group Grant from the NSFC (31421092), the Special Fund for Agro-scientific Research in the Public Interest (201103003), and National Natural Science Foundation—Outstanding Youth Foundation (31522050).

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Authors

Contributions

F.Z., X.C. and Z.C. designed the research and F.Z. supervised the project. Z.C., H.Z., G.M., Y.M., X.L., W.M., Q.G., J.Y., Z.W., Y. Ye, S.G., J.L., J.H., S. Lv, Y.S., Y.L., X.P., J.R., S. Li, X.D., X.S., Qia.Z., Z.Y., L.T., C.W., L.J., J.Z., M.H., Y.T., Q.T., X.Z., Z.L., N.C., C.K. and M.F. were key players as regional coordinators or group leaders for the field trials and national campaign; W.M., C.H., C.Z., W.Z., H.Y., Y. Yin, R.J., X.J. and Qin.Z. collected and analysed the data. Z.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 N. Mueller, D. Powlson, J. Reganold and L. Samberg for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher's note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Distribution of field trials for maize, rice and wheat systems from 2005 to 2015 in China.

The four coloured regions represent different agroecological zones for maize, rice and wheat. Numbers in brackets are site years. Dots denote individual sites. The Chinese map was obtained from the Resource and Environment Data Cloud Platform (http://www.resdc.cn/data.aspx?DATAID=202).

Extended Data Figure 2 Exponential models describing the relationship between N2O emissions and nitrogen rate.

N2O–N emissions were plotted against nitrogen rate for maize (n = 417), rice (n = 740) and wheat (n = 395). Red dotted lines are IPCC model-based calculations35. NC, CC and SC refer to north China, central China and south China, respectively, for maize and wheat production; NC-R, YR-R and SC-R refer to north China, Yangtze River Basin and south China, respectively, for rice production. **P < 0.01 and *P < 0.05 indicate the significance of the regression.

Extended Data Figure 3 Exponential models describing the relationship between NO3 leaching and nitrogen rate.

The NO3 leaching was plotted against nitrogen rate for maize (n = 238), rice (n = 150) and wheat (n = 201). The red dotted line is the IPCC model-based calculation35. NC, CC and SC refer to north China, central China and south China, respectively, for maize and wheat production. **P < 0.01 indicates the significance of the regression.

Extended Data Figure 4 Exponential models describing the relationship between nitrogen runoff and nitrogen rate for rice (n = 216).

NC, YR and SC refer to north China, Yangtze River Basin and south China, respectively, for rice production.

Extended Data Figure 5 Linear models describing the relationship between NH3 volatilization and nitrogen rate.

NH3–N volatilization was plotted against nitrogen rate for maize (n = 315), rice (n = 423) and wheat (n = 279) growing seasons, respectively. The red dotted line is the IPCC model35. NC, CC and SC refer to north China, central China and south China, respectively, for maize and wheat production; NC, YR and SC refer to north China, Yangtze River Basin and south China, respectively, for rice production. **P < 0.01.

Extended Data Table 1 Conventional farmers’ practice compared to ISSM-based recommendations for maize, rice or wheat in different agroecological zones
Extended Data Table 2 Maize yield, nitrogen rate, nitrogen productivity, reactive nitrogen losses and GHG emissions
Extended Data Table 3 Rice yield, nitrogen rate, nitrogen productivity, reactive nitrogen losses and GHG emissions
Extended Data Table 4 Wheat yield, nitrogen rate, nitrogen productivity, reactive nitrogen losses and GHG emissions
Extended Data Table 5 Area-weighted yield, nitrogen rate, total amounts of grain output, nitrogen fertilizer use, reactive nitrogen losses, and GHG emissions with scenario analysis using a 3-step progression, compared to prevailing practices, that is, business as usual

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Cui, Z., Zhang, H., Chen, X. et al. Pursuing sustainable productivity with millions of smallholder farmers. Nature 555, 363–366 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature25785

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