MIDST-CZO: Working with China to find solutions to soil degradation and water pollution
Arguably the deepest ever study of agricultural impacts to soil and water in China was recently completed in joint China-UK projects funded by the National Science Foundation of China and the Natural Environmental Research Council of the UK. One project on the Loess Plateau drilled boreholes up to 200 m deep and found nitrogen levels equivalent to more than 20 years of fertiliser application. In the Karst area of southwest China, 1-2 million tonnes of nitrogen were estimated to be lost each year through the cavernous limestone that lies beneath. In red soils in southeast China, 80-90% of unaccounted nitrogen was found below a depth of 1 m. Most studies of soils have been limited to shallow depths, with these new findings shedding light on just how much applied fertilisers may be seeping out of soils to pollute water and air.
Much more was studied in these projects, including pathogen movement, soil formation, erosion, and greenhouse gases. They also considered social factors driving farming practice and explored how farmers get information on better practices. By studying everything from the tops of trees to the bedrock beneath the soil, these projects contributed to a global network of Critical Zone Observatories. They have produced a wealth of knowledge being used in a major new follow-on project MIDST-CZO that is seeking a step-change in improved practices and policy in China to sustain soil and water resources.
The new project is led by the University of Aberdeen and has partners from 12 UK and 15 Chinese institutions. It is supported by £1.1 million from NERC with matched funding in China. The project strives to expand joint UK-China innovation by developing sophisticated, but simple to use, tools that can guide policy and farming in China. Called Decision Support Tools, they can range from smartphone Apps a farming advisor can use in the field, to specialist software that can test the environmental impacts of farm practices over large areas of land.
Professor Paul Hallett from the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Aberdeen, who leads the project, said: “Farming is changing rapidly in China with a strong drive to reverse soil degradation, use less fertiliser and water, and clean up impacts to the environment. The new tools we are developing aim to give policy makers and farmers confidence that they can achieve win-wins of less costs, greater yields and more profit, coupled with a lower impact of farming to the environment.”
Professor Steve Banwart from the University of Leeds said: “This project harnesses a huge pool of talent from both countries and links it to practical advances for farmers and companies involved in agriculture in China, and contributes to global efforts to supply safe food, pure water and a clean environment to future generations.”
Professor Ganlin Zhang from the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Soil Science is one of the lead scientists involved from China. He said: “We are looking forward to continued collaboration with our colleagues in the UK. The observatories established in China are producing fascinating findings on how the environment works, so it is exciting to use this new information to guide better farming practices.”
The data available from the studies in China gives confidence to develop robust tools that work in a range of environments from the tropics to urban agriculture. The IT sector in China will be able to package our technology into user-friendly Apps and software, improving the market in smart farming tools. In the future our tools will help innovate agricultural production in other parts of the world, aiming to improve the profitability of farming and its environmental impact at the same time.