A decade-long study involved 21 million smallholders shows how evidence-based approaches could improve food security. More than 1,000 researchers across China worked with 65,000 bureaucrats and technicians at provincial or county agricultural agencies and with 140,000 representatives from agriculture businesses. The project’s success highlights the importance of the vast social networks,
As part of a decade-long study, scientists analyzed vast amounts of agricultural data to develop improved practices, which they then passed on to smallholders. Through a national campaign, about 20.9 million farmers adopted the recommendations, which increased productivity and reduced environmental impacts. As a result of the intervention, farmers were together US$12.2 billion better off.
The scale of the project has stunned international scientists. With the global demand for food expected to double between 2005 and 2050, they hope that the study’s lessons can be applied to other countries. “This is an astonishing project of a scale way beyond anything I am familiar with,” says Leslie Firbank, who studies sustainable intensification of agriculture at the University of Leeds, UK.
Charles Godfray, a population biologist at the University of Oxford, UK, says that, over the past 30 years, China has achieved an agricultural miracle by producing enough food to feed the vast majority of its 1.4 billion people. But this feat has come at a tremendous cost to the environment, he says. Fertilizers, such as nitrogen, have increased crop production but have also acidified soil, polluted water and contributed to global warming. Godfray says the latest study demonstrates that it is possible to reduce fertilizer use while increasing economic returns on a large scale.
From 2005 to 2015, the project team conducted 13,123 field studies at maize (corn), rice and wheat farms across the country, from the subtropical south to the frigid north. The researchers tested how yields varied with different crop varieties, planting times, planting densities, fertilizer and water use. They also measured sunlight and the effect of the climate on farm production.
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