The agricultural sustainability project that reached over 20.9 million Chinese smallholder farmers struggling with increased populations

A group effort to improve crop yields and reduce fertilizer use utilized both bottom-up and top-down efforts to be able to successfully reach over 20 million smallholder farmers across China. Smallholder farmers, who control only a few areas of land, are beginning to dominate the agricultural landscape in countries like China, India, and parts of sub-Saharan Africa. By increasing their efficiency and reducing their environmental impacts, they are taking crucial steps to ensure sustainable food sources for the world’s (and their own country’s) growing populations. However, sharing the best practices with smallholder farmers is often a discouraging prospect because the farmers often have limited resources to invest back into their livelihoods and are often grouped in the hundreds of millions in China alone.

Included in a report by the journal Nature, Zhengxia Dou, a professor of agricultural systems in the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, teamed up with colleagues from China’s Agricultural University and other organizations in sharing a successful execution of a “long-term, broad-scale intervention that both improved yields and reduced fertilizer application across China.” The first author of the study, Zhenling Cui, along with the project leader and corresponding author, Fusuo Zhang, were both with China’s Agricultural University and assisted Dou. The study’s effort, which was in effect for over 10 years, engaged almost 21 million farmers and increased their yield on average by more than 10% and lowered fertilizer use between 15%-18%. As a whole, these actions created an increase in the farmers’ grain outputs with a decrease in fertilizer inputs, which made savings totaling close to $12.2 billion.

“The extent of the improvement in terms of yield increase and fertilizer decrease was great,” says Dou. “But it was not a surprise as similar results had been attained before. It was the scale of it all, approaching it with an all-out effort and multi-tiered partnerships among scientists, extension agents, agribusinesses, and farmers, achieving a snowball effect. That, to me, is the most impressive takeaway.”

The project began with the overall realization that the current agricultural practices with China’s large number of smallholder farmers didn’t meet the requirements they needed for sustainable productivity. Globally, the production of food has to increase 60%-110% over the 2005 levels by the year 2050 in order to meet this high demand. At this same time, the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation make farming a lot more difficult. In order to determine the best ways to meet the sustainable productivity demand, researchers in the study conducted over 13,000 field trials, which tested what they called “an integrated soil-crop system management program”, or ISSM. ISSM is a model that helps to determine which variety of crops, planting dates and densities, overall fertilizer uses, and other strategies will work best in any given climate and soil type. The tests for this particular model were done using maize, rice, and wheat.

Researchers then organized a massive campaign to work with farmers all across China after finally concluding that the ISSM model could help guide agricultural efforts across major farming zones in China, achieve yield improvements, and increase fertilizer reductions. In order to reach the 20.9 million smallholder farmers in 452 counties in China, this campaign involved more than 1,000 scientists and graduate students, 65,000 agricultural extension agents, and 130,000 agribusiness personnel, which were key partners in the effort by designing fertilizer products that matched the essential needs of the farmers.

“The collaborating scientists trained local technicians, and the technicians worked with the farmers closely to develop their management practices based on what made sense in the region,” Dou says, “This was a massive, nation-wide, multi-layered collaboration.”

To gain a deeper understanding of the current performance of Chinese farmers, the researchers conducted a survey of 8.6 million farmers from about 1,944 counties across the nation. They found a lot of room for improvements, since most had yields of at least 10 % and some as much as 50% lower than the ISSM model would predict. Dou believes the experiences and lessons gained through the nation-wide project can be applicable elsewhere, particularly in Asia. India, for example, is another country where the yields are relatively low and fertilizer use is high. In sub-Saharan Africa, both yield and fertilizer input is low, yet the lessons “inhow to work with smallholder farmers, how to earn their trust and engage with them,” Dou says, would hold true to those of China.