Optimizing wheat production and reducing environmental impacts through scientist–farmer engagement: Lessons from the North China Plain

Wei Jiang, Annah Zhu, Chong Wang, Fusuo Zhang, Xiaoqiang Jiao*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Producing high economic benefits and high grain yields with limited environmental impacts is crucial for feeding the world's growing population. Yet it remains challenging to improve the performance of one objective without creating unintended consequences for other objectives. This is especially difficult for smallholders navigating a diverse array of environmental and personal demands. This study demonstrates how combining participatory research through the Science and Technology Backyards (STB) approach with Pareto-based ranking modeling can increase smallholder production while also reducing environmental impact. Through an intensive farmer survey in a 1 × 1 km grid in Quzhou County, we demonstrate that farmers engaged in STBs performed better according to multiple objectives (i.e., optimizing overall grain yield, benefit-cost ratio, and GHG emissions, without compromising any one of these objectives) than farmer's not engaged in STBs. Moreover, we used a Pareto optimization approach (OPT) to determine the optimal smallholder scenario. We found that under OPT, grain yield could reach 9.5 t/ha, with a benefit-cost ratio of 2.1, a 100% N recovery efficiency, and 7,395 kg CO2eq ha−1 GHG emissions. With OPT as a final goal, our research team worked with STB farmers to improve economic and environmental outcomes without compromising yield. Our findings demonstrate that no significant difference was obtained between farmers engaged in STBs and these under OPT. Compared with non-STB farmers, STB farmers’ grain yield improved by 18%, benefit-cost ratio improved by 26% due to improved N recovery efficiency, and GHG emissions were reduced by 31%. These improvements demonstrate the power of scientist–farmer engagement for optimizing wheat production. Such engagement allows farmers to modify their agronomic practices to more closely match Pareto optimal conditions, thus improving environmental and economic benefits without compromising yield. Our results provide solid evidence of the potential for sustainable wheat production by combining modeling with participatory research.

Original languageEnglish
JournalFood and Energy Security
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 4 Nov 2020


  • multi-objective
  • smallholder farmers
  • sustainable intensification
  • wheat production

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