An op-ed by Kate Kuo- Program Officer, Agriculture, Srivalli Krishnan,-Senior Program Officer, and Nachiket Mor-Country Director, India at Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
In March 2018, Nature magazine published a groundbreaking 10-year study by China Agriculture University involving millions of smallholder farmers adopting enhanced practices. Through a scaled, countrywide effort, farm productivity rose by 11% while the use of nitrogen fertilizers — critical to increasing crop productivity, but also harmful to the environment when overused — declined by 14–18%. The profitability of the intervention, even before monetising the positive environmental impacts, was $12.2 billion.
The programme was an impressive marriage of knowledge workers, researchers, farmers, new technology, and businesses — all supported by a committed government that stayed the course. The result stunned the scientific community for its scale, success and impact.
The project was carried out under the sponsorship of the Chinese political leadership who aimed to transform agriculture at an unprecedented scale and speed. In December 2014, their central government shifted the focus of agricultural policy from high yields to sustainable production to achieve both food security and environment sustainability. In January 2015, a government document described the future of agriculture for the first time as efficient production, safe products, resource-use efficiency, and environment friendly. A month later, the government released a policy of zero-increase in chemical inputs by 2020. Collectively, these policies aimed to create a high quality, high efficiency, and environmentally sound agricultural sector without a dependency on subsidies.
Between 2005 and 2015, China Agricultural University led a nationally coordinated initiative for 20.9 million smallholder farmers in wheat, rice and maize to promote adoption of enhanced management technologies for greater yields and reduced environmental pollution. The project began by conducting over 13,000 field studies across all agro-ecological zones, from the subtropical south to the frigid north. Based on the trials, over 1,152 agricultural scientists from 33 agricultural universities collaborated with local farmers and experts to develop packages of recommended practices tailored to local conditions. The practices were based on a comprehensive, adaptable framework of integrated soil-crop system management (ISSM), which consists of cropping strategies (crop variety, planting date, and density) derived from the crop model simulations for optimal use of solar and thermal resources and strategies for nutrient and water application according to soil tests and crop characteristics.
The next step in the programme was to disseminate the ISSM practices through a national campaign in collaboration with 65,420 public extension workers and 138,530 private agribusiness staff. A variety of remarkably low-tech approaches were utilised to get the word out, including workshops for farmers to share experiences; in-person, on-site, timely advisory services; enhanced access to high-quality seeds, fertilizers and other chemicals, and demonstration plots.
Importantly, the outreach campaign recognised that changing a farmer’s behaviour required more than scientific recommendations. It required building trust and local capacity. Termed “participatory innovation,” field staff would engage with the most skilled and engaged farmers in the community through close dialogues and interactions. These “lead farmers” would help refine the recommendations to fit the local context, be the “early adopters” of the practices to influence others and serve as resources to answer questions and share experiences during demonstrations. Other local agents and experts would assist in translating the scientific content to common language more understandable to farmers.
A fascinating model emerged in parallel, the Science and Technology Backyard (STB), in which professors and graduate students lived in villages for two years, working shoulder to shoulder with farmers to carry out research centred on transferring scientific results into concrete knowledge and practices relevant for the local community. While carrying out research on improved practices, these students also developed deep bonds with the community through participation in local cultural events. The STB programme has become very competitive, attracting the country’s best students, and will soon be incorporating precision agriculture and agribusiness approaches.
Given the global birth rates, food production needs to be doubled by 2050. The large food producing countries will need to balance their growing national and global consumption requirements with the productivity and environmental challenges they face. This project shows that addressing the knowledge gap among smallholders can significantly improve productivity, farmer prosperity, and environmental sustainability all at the same time. The secret ingredient, though, is not the science. It’s coordinated and consistent action among agricultural players — government, academic institutions, private sector, and farmers.
The article was originally published in Hindustan Times on March 12, 2019