The effects of combined digital and human advisory services on reducing nitrogen fertilizer use : lessons from China’s national research programs on low carbon agriculture

Ding, Jiping; Jia, Xiangping; Zhang, Weifeng; Klerkx, Laurens


In the context of emerging digital advisory services that can make a potential difference in sustainable farming practices, this article analyzes the connection between on-farm human interaction and digital advice. Based on an experimental case from China’s largest ever national research initiative on reducing agrochemical use in agricultural production, this study found that introducing university facilitators to promote ICT-based advisory services is conducive to site-specific fertilizer use. Through interactions with farmers, the facilitator complemented digital advisory services to achieve optimal N-fertilizer use in maize production. Digital service providers favoured large farms and usually would not service smallholder farmers, thus limiting the potential of digital advisory services. A main theoretical implication is that digital technology should not be completely relied upon because it may only give part of the answer. A human facilitator still plays an important role in integrating new technologies in interaction with farmers. Human advisory services can interpret or translate data to improve farmers’ decision-making, going beyond the advisory capacity of ICT technology. This is an important policy implication for China regarding its national research policies on agricultural sustainability and digital advisory services, and also calls for further research on interactions between digital and human advisory services.