Reforming farming in China
The challenge of growing enough food to sustain an ever-expanding population has led the Chinese government to look at creative solutions to reform farming in the country.
A particular challenge is tackling the countrys increasing reliance on mineral fertilisers to maximise crop yield. These fertilisers are produced industrially at a huge energy cost; they are one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gases from any agricultural process. Not only that they contain metals that can remain in the soil, or pollute streams and groundwater, posing health risks as they accumulate over time.
A new model field observatory, called a Critical Zone Observatory, being established on the southern side of Chinas Yangtze River, near Ningbo city, is developing viable alternatives to the use of mineral fertilisers and methods to convince farmers to adopt them. The Ningbo observatory, led by Professor Steve Banwart from the University of Leeds and Professor Yongguan Zhu from the Chinese Academy of Science Institute for Urban Environment, is part of a network of 30 CZOs worldwide supported by organisations such as the US National Science Foundation, The German Helmholtz Foundation, the French CNRS and the European Commission. Professor Banwart believes these centres could hold the key to a step change in farming practice opening the door to improved agricultural yield and lower environmental impact not just in China, but in other parts of the world too.
Critical Zone Observatories attract researchers from a variety of different disciplines who can carry out basic and applied research, into the
At the research centre in Ningbo, which is supported by the Newton Fund, researchers will develop a viable supply chain of organic fertilisers using pig slurry and wastewater sludge from urban centres. The challenge is to demonstrate, initially, that these new products work. They must show, too, that they are safe to use,
Professor Banwart explains: So much of our food production around the world is interlinked in a vastly complicated network of supply and demand, production and consumption. We need to minimise the resource usage required to maintain this network, whether thats reducing the amount of water or pollution in food production, reducing the carbon footprint of production and distribution or as in the case of the project in China reducing the dependence on CO2-emitting fertilisers required to maintain production.
To do that, we need to link many different disciplines, including business and supply chain management, environmental change and human health. As part of the N8 group of universities, were in a great position to harness a real depth of expertise in a joined-up way and apply that to the whole of our food supply system.
Steve Banwart is Integrating Chair in Soil/Water/Agriculture Research in the School of Earth and Environment