UK - China Virtual Joint Centre for Improved Nitrogen Agronomy (CINAG)

Lead Research Organisation: Rothamsted Research
Department Name: Sustainable Soils and Grassland Systems


UK-China Virtual Joint Centre for Improved Nitrogen Agronomy (CINAG)

Despite making great progress, China still needs to increase agricultural production to feed its growing population with its increasing expectations while overcoming the considerable environmental problems that industrial and agricultural development has brought with it such as air and water pollution and soil acidification. Currently the three main cereal crops (wheat, maize and rice) use only 33% of the nitrogen fertiliser applied, and less than 40% of the nutrients in recyclable organic 'wastes' such as livestock manure are returned to agriculture. China Agricultural University (CAU), the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS) and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) have developed innovative and successful ways of working with farmers to improve the situation, increasing yields of winter wheat and summer maize by 35% and reducing nitrogen fertiliser use by 20%. However, the Chinese Government has set the goal of increasing yields with zero increases in chemical inputs by the year 2020.

Rothamsted Research and its partners in this proposal, the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) and Bangor University (BU), have worked with CAU, CAAS and CAS for over 10 years, producing research into agriculture and the environment that has been published in the very best journals such as 'Nature' and 'Science' but also used by Chinese farmers through such mechanisms as a Chinese fertiliser recommendations system and farmer field schools. We propose to increase our UK-China collaborative research through a Virtual Joint Centre in Nitrogen Agronomy that would:
1. Carry out joint research projects, in particular using novel 'Farm Platforms' that will allow us to develop economically and environmentally sustainable farm systems through research at the farm level.
2. Exchange staff and students for laboratory and field work, with a strong focus on UK-to-China movements and for periods of 1-3 months, e.g. summer student visits from the UK to China to work on the new CAU Cropping Farm Platform.
3. Hold joint conferences and meetings, with public participation.
4. Share data management, publications and practical work with farmers in China and the UK.
We will develop novel metagenomic-based indicators of N use efficiency and soil quality, use these indicators, and other emerging knowledge, to test and develop farm systems that permit the sustainable intensification of (especially Chinese) agriculture, and take these developments to Chinese farmers. We will achieve this through four Work Packages: improved fundamental understanding of N cycling; harnessing novel N technologies; improved agronomic practices; predictive capacity and knowledge exchange

The Centre will build on previous collaborations such as China Partnering Awards and joint projects between the partners such as 'Sino-United Kingdom Low Carbon Agriculture' project (Grant FCO-C02/62.1001), 2008-2011, funded jointly by the UK FCO and the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture and an existing VJC with CAAS: The 'Centre for the Sustainable Intensification of Agriculture' (CSIA) and closely link to similar international initiatives such as EU 'N Expert Panel', utilising the Panel's approaches for expressing NUE at (1) the farm level and (2) through the food chain in order to compare systems and regions and as a stimulus to use N more efficiently.

The Centre will translate its research into practice in China through the existing and very 'Science and Technology Backyard (STB)' programme, managed by our partners at CAU, CAAS and the Hebei Institute of Agricultural Sciences, and linked to Chinese local government extension agencies, fertiliser companies and farmers.

Planned Impact

The Chinese government has set the goal for researchers of increasing agricultural output but with zero increase in chemical inputs, especially of N fertiliser, after 2020. This is a major challenge, requiring the reconfiguration of Chinese agriculture over the next 10 years. The UK and other developed countries need a step change in how they improve and monitor N use efficiency and soil quality in general. We can now identify key steps in N cycling and mineralisation using standard enzymatic assays, and use these together with soil metagenomes that determine the phylogenetic diversity of key genes as measures of soil functional health (including the expression level of key genes involved in C and N cycling). We propose to apply these methods to the quantitative assessment of N cycling and general soil quality and health in China and the UK, delivering a novel molecular diagnostic test for soil N supply. This would take methods of measuring soil quality to a new level and facilitate maximising N use in cropping systems.

We will carry out preliminary tests of manure metagenomics to see if this can inform on nutrient content and better N use efficiency from manures. We will develop recommendation tables for organic amendments, especially manures, for China's Fertiliser Recommendations and a CrapApp (see ) for China. We will develop next-generation monitoring schemes with key indicators developed from Sustainable Intensification metrics and current work with the Sustainable Development Solutions Network such as the 'Indicators and a Monitoring Framework for Sustainable Development Goals'.

The research focus will be provided by using complementary farm platforms in the UK and China, linked to research on other farm platforms around the world via the Global Farm Platforms programme (GFP). In particular, CAU will be establishing a new arable platform on an existing 500-ha university farm 70 km south of Bejing. Together we will design and develop an innovation and demonstration farm for China: the CAU Farm Platform (CAUFP). The farm will test and compare economically, agronomically, environmentally and socially sustainable farm businesses and be a model for the whole of China and be the focus of joint research that will include UK staff and students working on the CAUFP. Translation will be primarily through the continuing very successful socioeconomic and agronomic integrated science of the 'Science and Technology Backyard (STB)' programme, managed by our partners at CAU in collaboration with the Crop Science Group at CAAS and the Hebei Institute of Agricultural Sciences, and linked to Chinese local government extension agencies, fertiliser companies and farmers.

The VJC will help address poverty issues for Chinese farmers by providing solutions relating to the environmental and economic sustainability of food production in China. Proven, internationally-excellent, research groups from the UK and China will collaborate to improve Nitrogen Use Efficiency across a range of cropping systems, and dedicated capacity building, research translation and outreach activities will ensure direct economic and social benefits to farmers across the country. Through an increase in the skills and knowledge base of Chinese agricultural researchers the VJC will further improve China's ability to undertake and disseminate research to maximise impact on the issues of rural and economic growth through the sustainable intensification of agriculture. Furthermore, there will be significant development of research infrastructures for the agriculture, food security and environmental protection sectors; all of which have been identified as priorities by the Chinese government for welfare enhancement and economic development.


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Description A modelling study conducted by members of the CINAg team and reported in the journal Environmental Science and Technology (Vol 50, pages 13409-13418) illustrates how optimising use of manure nutrients in the range of livestock production systems in China could reduce N, P and K fertiliser input by up to 27, 82 and 100% by 2020 if barriers to recycling manure nutrients can be overcome .
Exploitation Route These findings have implications for future manure management in China. The development of nutrient management plans to fully account for manure nutrients will be environmentally beneficial (fewer nutrient losses to the wider environment), but only economically beneficial if current fertilizer industry subsidies are redirected to improve manure management practices. To improve manure utilization, large changes and investments in the livestock farm infrastructure, namely, animal housing, manure storage, and facilities for manure transportation and application, are needed. An integrated manure and fertilizer nutrient recommendation system has to be developed that takes account of the total nutrient and available nutrient contents of manures. Finally, the resulting improved knowledge needs to be disseminated to farmers.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice
Description Amelioration of soil acidification from long-term chemical fertilizers combined with organic materials
Amount £17,170 (GBP)
Organisation Centre for Sustainable Intensification of Agriculture, Rothamsted 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland (UK)
Start 09/2016 
End 08/2018
Description BBSRC Meeting of Virtual Joint Centres in Agricultural Nitrogen 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Study participants or study members
Results and Impact The Principal Investigators, or their nominees, of the BBSRC/Newton-funded Virtual Joint Centres (VJCs) in Agricultural Nitrogen were invited to take part in a shared strategy and planning meeting. This provided the opportunity for the project leaders to meet each other, share experiences and become more familiar with the research and activities being undertaken within the different Centres.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
Description INI 2016 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Platform presentation 'Nitrogen budgets for lowland temperate beef and sheep grazing systems: the North Wyke Farm Platform' to the 7th International Nitrogen Initiative 2016 Conference in Melbourne, Australia, 4-8 December 2016.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
Description Nitrogen Workshop (Sweden) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Poster presentation: 'UK-CHINA VIRTUAL JOINT CENTRE FOR IMPROVED NITROGEN AGRONOMY' at the 19th N Workshop, Skara, Sweden, 27-29 June 2016.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
Description STB Review Lishu 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact CINAg members participated in an international review group for the Lishu Science and technology Backyard Programme (STBP), held in Lishu, China from 26th - 30th June 2016. This included a workshop on 'Sustainable agricultural development for smallholders' and a site visit to the Lishu STBP and associated experiments on maize nutrition with discussions on the potential for inclusion of sensors and further measurements.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016