New technologies can improve agricultural sustainability in developing countries, but only with the engagement of local farmers and the social and economic networks they depend on, say Stanford University researchers. Their findings are published in the May 23 online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

"Most people tend to think that technology information flows to farmers through a direct pipeline from scientists, but that isn't true," said lead author Ellen McCullough, a former research fellow at Stanford's Program on Food Security and the Environment, now at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The study was co-authored by Pamela Matson, dean of the School of Earth Sciences and senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford.

To better understand how farmers decide to adopt new technologies, the researchers interviewed growers, farm credit unions and agricultural experts in the Yaqui Valley in Sonora, Mexico – the birthplace of the "green revolution" in wheat and one of Mexico's most productive breadbaskets. 

Matson and other Stanford researchers have been working in the Yaqui Valley for nearly 20 years. Among their objectives is demonstrating how science can inform agricultural policy in an area grappling with the kinds of environmental challenges that plague other intensive farming regions.

While Yaqui Valley supplies most of Mexico's wheat, the environmental costs are high, according to the Stanford researchers. Valley farms pollute local drinking water, wreck coastal ecosystems and foul the air with particulates that cause a variety of diseases.

"If scientists want to offer solutions to manage these environmental impacts, they need to understand what influences farmers' decisions about technology and production strategies," McCullough said.