The “organic versus conventional farming” debate that rages in hip circles often ignores a hugely important aspect of farming: how both methods affect crop yields. It’s pretty easy to protest the evils of synthetic pesticides when the biggest ramification of your views is that you have to walk half a block out of the way or spend an extra $1.50 for an all-organic, non-GMO, in the shade grown, free range, kale smoothie instead of a regular one.
But it’s not that easy when you’re trying to grow enough calories to support our planet’s growing population on a dwindling amount of arable land. A radical new venture undertaken in rural China in 2009 has helped maximize crop yields, bringing them within a hair’s breadth of their theoretical maximum. And it didn’t rely on fancy new chemicals or technologies. Rather, it “used several time-honoured education extension methods coupled with innovative outreach mechanisms.” In other words, scientists moved in with the farmers and taught them.
In 2009, professors and graduate students from China Agricultural University went to live in farming communities in Quzhou province, about 500 kilometers south of Beijing. To find out why crop yields were so much lower than they could have been, the scientists devised a clever test design: they asked the farmers. It turned out that the farmers were not planting the best seed varieties for their local soil, they were not planting them at the optimum densities, and they were not using the fertilizers properly.
Much of this was due to market confusion. These farmers are marketed with dozens of fertilizer and seed varieties, but given very little information about them, so they often make purchasing decisions, just like we do when they become paralyzed with indecision when they encounter too many delicious varieties of Doritos in the supermarket aisle : they bought based on price and advertising schemes rather than which one is best (nacho cheese, of course [ed. note—Taco, actually]).
Farmers were also not sowing, irrigating and harvesting during the optimal time windows, mainly because they often have other jobs.
After collecting this information from the farmers, the scientists made 10 recommendations to help optimize yields. The farmers vetted and adjusted the recommendations to ensure they were viable. The scientists reported that they then “engaged community members through face-to-face communication and socio-cultural bonding.” In other words, they interacted with the farmers and explained how these changes could help them.
Within two years, the program has increased wheat and corn yields from just 67 percent of experimentally achievable yields to 97 percent. The farmers also had more agronomic knowledge, more efficient use of nutrients and water, and saw a better economic return. And the farmers didn’t just talk to the scientists; they talked to each other. The knowledge and benefits of this technology traveled like the wind to neighboring farming communities.
Nature2016. DOI: 10.1038/nature19368 (About DOIs).