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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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).

Author information


  1. College of Resources and Environmental Sciences, China Agricultural University, Beijing 100193, China

    • Zhenling Cui
    • , Hongyan Zhang
    • , Xinping Chen
    • , Chaochun Zhang
    • , Chengdong Huang
    • , Weifeng Zhang
    • , Guohua Mi
    • , Yuxin Miao
    • , Xiaolin Li
    • , Hao Ying
    • , Yulong Yin
    • , Xiaoqiang Jiao
    • , Qingsong Zhang
    • , Mingsheng Fan
    • , Rongfeng Jiang
    •  & Fusuo Zhang
  2. College of Resources and Environmental Sciences, Agricultural University of Hebei, Baoding 071001, China

    • Wenqi Ma
  3. College of Resources and Environment, Jilin Agricultural University, Changchun 130118, China

    • Qiang Gao
  4. Key Laboratory of Crop Genetics and Physiology of Jiangsu Province, Yangzhou University, Yangzhou 225009, China

    • Jianchang Yang
  5. Northwest Agriculture and Forestry University, Yangling 712100, China

    • Zhaohui Wang
    •  & Yanan Tong
  6. College of Resources and Environmental Sciences, Henan Agricultural University, Zhengzhou 450000, China

    • Youliang Ye
  7. College of Resources and Environmental Sciences, Nanjing Agricultural University, Nanjing 210095, China

    • Shiwei Guo
  8. Huazhong Agricultural University, Wuhan 430070, China

    • Jianwei Lu
    •  & Jianliang Huang
  9. Soil and Fertilizer Research Institute, Sichuan Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Chengdu 610066, China

    • Shihua Lv
  10. Soil and Fertilizer Research Institute, Anhui Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Hefei 230031, China

    • Yixiang Sun
  11. College of Resources and Environment, Northeast Agricultural University, Harbin 150030, China

    • Yuanying Liu
    •  & Xianlong Peng
  12. Institute of Agricultural Resource and Environment, Jilin Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Changchun 130033, China

    • Jun Ren
  13. State Key Laboratory of Soil Erosion and Dryland Farming on the Loess Plateau, Northwest Agriculture and Forestry University, Yangling 712100, China

    • Shiqing Li
    •  & Xiping Deng
  14. College of Resources and Environment, Southwest University, Chongqing 400716, China

    • Xiaojun Shi
  15. Institute of Agricultural Environment and Resources, Shanxi Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Taiyuan 030031, China

    • Qiang Zhang
    •  & Zhiping Yang
  16. College of Resources and Environmental Science, Yunnan Agricultural University, Kunming 650201, China

    • Li Tang
  17. Department of Resources and Environment, Agriculture College, Shihezi University, Shihezi, Xinjiang, 832003, China

    • Changzhou Wei
  18. Institute of Agricultural Resources and Environment, Hebei Academy of Agriculture and Forestry Sciences, Shijiazhuang 050051, China

    • Liangliang Jia
  19. College of Agronomy, Shandong Agricultural University, Tai’an 271000, China

    • Jiwang Zhang
    •  & Mingrong He
  20. College of Agronomy, Hunan Agricultural University, Changsha 410128, China

    • Qiyuan Tang
  21. Rice Research Institute, Guangdong Academy of Agricultural Science, Guangzhou, Guangdong 510640, China

    • Xuhua Zhong
  22. Shandong Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Jinan 250100, China

    • Zhaohui Liu
  23. College of Plant Science, Jilin University, Changchun, 130012, China

    • Ning Cao
  24. Institute of Plant Nutrition and Resource Environment, Henan Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Zhengzhou 450002, China

    • Changlin Kou
  25. Center for Animal Health and Productivity, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Kennett Square, Pennsylvania 19348, USA

    • Zhengxia Dou


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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.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Fusuo Zhang.

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.

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