N-CIRCLE: Virtual Joint Centre for Closed-Loop Cycling of Nitrogen in Chinese Agriculture

Lead Research Organisation: University of Aberdeen
Department Name: Inst of Biological and Environmental Sci


China's agriculture is increasing its productivity and developing rapidly, but low efficiency of N use through overfertilization with N, increasingly threatens its sustainability (Duan et al., 2014). This situation is exacerbated by a vast number of small decentralized farms, inadequate knowledge or equipment, and a weak agronomic extension service (Fan et al., 2012). Agriculture in the UK, by contrast has had static production for twenty years but has built a strong knowledge-base and infrastructure for pollution control. A China-UK VJC on agricultural N use will deliver realistic short-to-medium term solutions for both countries: intensified crop productivity supported by near-closed-loop N cycling (Shock & Shock, 2012). This will advance the economic development and welfare of China's rural regions into the foreseeable future.

The key challenge is to integrate and develop synergies between disparate technologies. The 'N-Circle' VJC will create a dynamic and lasting multi-disciplinary hub, with a clear vision, to attract, integrate and harness the relevant skills and expertise from the UK and China, to create infrastructure to deliver tight agricultural N cycling in China. In particular, environmental, biological and genetic scientists will combine with specialists in agronomic extension to form teams that share and develop a multi-scale approach, implemented through the Cool Farm Tool (CFT) for both commercial and scientific purposes. The CFT is already bi-lingual (English and Mandarin), so will be used to identify crucial points for intervention, to elicit targeted innovations, to explain and promote their adoption, and to assess their impacts. N-Circle will work across physical scales, across scales of ambition, and across scales of experience, so that its agenda for change is dynamic, ongoing and lasting. Each of its research and extension activities will involve bilateral exchanges and training to build technical expertise, to maximise synergies, build research capacity and enthuse the science leaders of the future. An intensive outreach programme will engage with regional agricultural communities throughout, to achieve rapid change through recognition and adoption of the N-Circle concepts and philosophy within agriculture and among consumers.

Exciting technological synergies are feasible if the potential power of multiple innovations in molecular, chemical, micro-biological, agronomic and engineering technologies can be integrated and up-scaled into economically viable systems at field, farm and regional scales. N-Circle will (i) stimulate targeted innovations at leading UK and Chinese research laboratories, (ii) integrate them on 'case study' farms and in typical catchments, supported by the CFT and other models that validate economic and environmental impacts, and local teams to facilitate two-way knowledge exchange (KE) between industry and science, and (iii) will establish a quality mark to recognise and accredit tight N cycling practices in China. The ultimate outcomes of the 'N-Circle' VJC will be (i) a widespread belief that future intensification of Chinese agriculture can be based on sustainable N cycling, with N inputs and N emissions both minimised, and (ii) an agenda to realise that belief.

Several immediate technological opportunities make this an apt time for progress in tighter N cycling in China, including (i) availability of understanding, inhibitors and machinery to manipulate soil microbiology, (ii) renewed interest in legume-based rotations, and commercial availability of endophytic diazotrophs as non-legume inoculants, (iii) enhanced computing power to summarise intensive datasets on crop dynamics, as well as genetics and environmental emissions, (iv) global positioning infrastructure supported by a data processing revolution that enables spatial experimentation, (v) genetic transformation technology that enables harvested crop proteins to be tailored closely to end-user requirements.

Planned Impact

The N-Circle VJC will promote economic development and welfare in China, through promoting sustainability of agricultural intensification. Sustainable intensification is proposed as a key mechanism for delivering food security in a world of 9-10 billion people by 2050, but it is also vital to rural economic development and welfare at national and regional level in China. Sustainable intensification of food production in China's fast developing economy principally depends on recognising the need and means to minimise adverse social, economic and environmental impacts of agricultural practices, to allow food security to be delivered for generations to come. If intensification can become sustainable, growth and welfare of agricultural areas of China will be enhanced. The management of N is critical to delivering both intensification and sustainability.

N is the major nutrient that can be controlled by producers. It exists in many chemical forms as it cycles within natural and agricultural ecosystems. Its various forms determine its availability to microbes, plants and livestock and whether it can be lost from the system. This VJC will host, support and energise bilateral multidisciplinary teams of agricultural and environmental scientists with expertise on the many aspects of N cycling to address China's vital agricultural sustainability challenge with respect to N. The VJC will initiate an innovation pipeline which feeds into a multi-organisation change agenda, identified by a newly instituted 'N Circle' quality mark; thus N Circle will engage all players in the supply chain from fertiliser to food and fuel in China.

The research teams' hypotheses will be investigated through an integrated programme of laboratory analyses, field experiments, modelling and outreach. The VJC's teams will employ novel approaches to engineering, fertiliser chemistry, crop genetics, and system logistics to achieve minimal emissions and only essential transfers at successive hotspots around the N cycle and thus to minimise N inputs and N emissions for the cycle as a whole. As the VJC's research gains momentum, new N cycling strategies, incorporating the new innovative approaches, will be compared with 'Business as Usual' strategies using the VJC's modelling framework, and optimal strategies will be resolved and promulgated with local policy-makers and other stakeholders to achieve the most effective attainable impacts within each region. New strategies can draw upon features of local agricultural knowledge, beliefs and practices and will build-in new systematic information to attain sustainability.

The hypotheses central to our collaborative effort are that sustainable N use in China will be best founded on a vision of closed-loop N cycling, aspiring to minimal N inputs and minimal N emissions, and that this vision will be best realised, not only by individual innovations, but by promoting a high-level overview and valuation of N cycling from which concerted synergies between successive steps of China's agricultural N cycles can be designed and realised. Example interdependencies around the N cycle identified for synergistic innovations are application methods with the formulation of fertilisers and manures, fertiliser management with crop breeding, crop breeding with food processing and livestock feed formulation, and livestock feeding with manure composition and management. Changes and synergies in practice will be best effected by instituting an awareness and promotion campaign from the outset of the project.

Through close links with other proposed VJCs involving India & Brazil, we will help to develop global integrated solutions. The VJC will inherently support training, education and community-building through being based in Universities and through organising training in interdisciplinary research through workshops and an international conference.


10 25 50
Description We have seen significant room for improving fertiliser management in China - this is now being worked up into guidelines
Exploitation Route Lots of opportunity for researchers to use the data and farmers / policy makers to make changes
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment

URL http://www.abdn.ac.uk/ncircle/
Description We are working our preliminary findings up into guidance for farmers and policy makers in China
First Year Of Impact 2016
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment
Impact Types Economic,Policy & public services

Description VJC Joint meeting
Amount £11,000 (GBP)
Funding ID BB/N013484/1 
Organisation Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2017 
End 09/2017