Working with China to find a solution to pollution

Cattle grazing by a river

7 February 2019 by Carla Yorukoglu

Scientists are delving deep underground to study the agricultural impacts to soil and water in China, and are one step closer to finding a solution to land degradation and pollution.

Changes in the way China manages its land and water use, due to population and economic development pressures, have resulted in a lack of fresh water and widespread decline in soil health quality. To help alleviate this problem, scientists funded by NERC and the National Science Foundation of China embarked on in-depth studies to understand how best to sustain China's struggling ecosystem services, which are integral to the provisioning of clean water, the decomposition of waste and the natural pollination of crops.

Most studies of soils have been limited to shallow depths, but these new findings have shed light on how much applied fertilisers may be seeping out of soils to pollute water and air. As well as focusing on soil formation, erosion and greenhouses gases, scientists also looked at the 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.

Together with a team of 12 UK partners and 15 Chinese institutions, a new project will build upon these findings in a bid to develop sophisticated, but simple to use, tools that can guide policy and farming. This will range from smartphone apps that farmers 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 University of Aberdeen's School of Biological Sciences, who is leading the project, said:

This has produced a wealth of knowledge that will allow our new follow-on project, MIDST-CZO, to seek a step-change in improved practices and policy in China to sustain soil and water resources.

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 policymakers 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.

We hope 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.

Professor Steve Banwart from the University of Leeds added:

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, who is one of the lead scientists involved from China, 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.

We hope 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.