MIDST-CZ: Maximising Impact by Decision Support Tools for sustainable soil and water through UK-China Critical Zone science

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


This collaborative UK-China project proposes will establish a suite of Decision Support Tools (DSTs) that incorporate knowledge advances from the ongoing Phase 1 UK-China Critical Zone science research programme. With these advances, DSTs currently used in the UK and China will be adapted, expanded, tested and applied. The DSTs, data sets and decision outcomes will guide and evaluate site-specific innovation in soil and water management, and create roadmaps to scale up impact outcomes and plans to regional and national scale in China. The project will integrate the teams and research results of the 5 projects funded in Phase 1. Phase 2 will deliver immediate innovation in decision support methods and their application, and pathways to long-term impact and ODA outcomes: to restore ecosystems, improve soil fertility and water quality, improve farming livelihoods and improve food and water security. Impact delivery will focus on 5 critical zone observatories (CZOs) in China, established in Phase 1, which are located in regions with large-scale environmental and economic challenges related to degraded soil and water resources.

1. Hydro Karst CZO in SW China - land use and water quality linked to nutrient contamination of aquifers and surface waters in transmissive carbonate terrain
2. Peri-Urban CZO in the Yangtze delta - soil contamination from urban atmospheric deposition and intensification of agricultural chemical use
3. SPECTRA Karst CZO in SW China - Ecosystem degradation and karstic desertification linked with soil erosion and loss of soil fertility
4. Red Soils CZO - loss of soil fertility from intensification of agricultural production
5. Loess CZO - ecosystem degradation under intensification of rural land use

Participatory research with stakeholders in China will identify the land, water and food demand conflicts that need be addressed in the regions of the CZOs. This KE is designed to avoid a recognised mismatch between the way DSTs are conceptualised by scientists and how DSTs may be most effectively used by stakeholders. Recent reviews of DSTs for land, water and food sustainability provide a platform for assessing the suitability of different DSTs to the challenges of China. The UK and China teams and stakeholders will identify the most promising DST approaches and test these using the data sets of the 5 CZOs. The outputs will be tested with a wider set of DST users and potential users. The outcomes will allow mapping DSTs and their suitability to address soil and water management challenges at the 5 CZO sites. This work will assess effectiveness of the DSTs across the scales of interest for stakeholder groups at the sites. This will include identifying sustainable practices, the scale at which the CZO and related measurements strengthen the evidence base and inform practices for management decisions, and how adaptations in a DST methodology would improve site-specific application. The project will apply national data sets on the geographic variability of soil and water resource demand and use patterns, and natural conditions of geology, soil, vegetation cover, climate and weather. Through engagement with regional planners, the project will design pathways to scale up the DST outcomes for application in regional-scale resource planning. The final stage will be synthesis of the adapted, applied and upscaled DST methods into practical guidance in how to deploy the DSTs in regionally specific contexts, the capabilities of different DSTs and applicability of DST outputs. The institutional partners in China will publish the guidance and organisations will be identified and trained as superusers to disseminate training. Superusers will conduct a series of regional workshops in China, led by Chinese partners, to create a network of users who are at the forefront of innovation in soil and water management planning and implementation.

Planned Impact

The following will benefit from this research:
1. Those living in and managing the land for food production, and soil and water quality, and their conservation will benefit from the decision support tools (DST) that will be refined or developed based on our Critical Zone integrated understanding of how the environment functions. These tools will allow these stakeholders to be guided on best management practices for their business and the environment. The DSTs will lead to improvements in their quality of life, ensuring the fundamental needs (generation of food and associated economic development; access to water of appropriate quality) and decisions of how to achieve these, are underpinned by a useful knowledge-base.
2. Commercial organisations that depend on innovation, such as 'app' developers will benefit from our engagement with them to explore in what form the decision support tools should be made available. Moreover, the DSTs will be useful to agronomists and the fertiliser industry. Specific interest from two Chinese companies producing nutrients from sewage and other organic wastes has been demonstrated in letters of support.
3. This joint research will remain of benefit to the NSFC, raising their profile in the UK and amongst other critical zone scientists. The exchanges of skills and information that will occur during this research with Chinese colleagues will build international competitiveness of science in both UK and the UK. The research will ultimately demonstrate to the international scientific community the value sensitive environments, and the benefits of international cooperation in research to tackle grand challenges of food security, land degradation and climate change. It will help consolidate each country's position as a future key research partner, and particularly the NSFC in China as a partner of choice for future co-funded research with the UK.
4. Through publication and conference activity, the Chinese and UK academic parties will demonstrate to the community how their scientific endeavour can be used to create tangible outputs to improve the quality of life and global environment for those on low incomes or managing degraded land. They will benefit through enhanced international standing and resultant funded research collaboration.
5. The wider public, and local communities hosting the research, will benefit during the research activity through research team communication activity that meets their passion for and excites them to understand the natural world more deeply. This also includes those not involved directly in the research who may be asked to help gather data and in turn will receive training in new skills. In turn if this encourages greater interest in how STEM subjects also inform social development, the relevant country science base will benefit.
6. Through progress towards achieving sustainable development goals the global community will benefit.


10 25 50
Description This project has only just completed its first year so most findings are still to come.

We discovered a close link between geochemistry, measured using the critical zone approach, and crop productivity across a region of China.

In collaboration with China we also released a novel decisions support tool to guide agricultural policy making at regional level in China. This is currently available as a beta version on a restricted website, but we hope for further release in the future.

We have also reviewed over 400 decision support tools to assess their validity for use in China and the breadth of their predictions of environmental, agricultural and economic impacts from agricultural practices.
Exploitation Route This project is developing decision support tools that use the critical zone approach. They are to guide better agricultural practices that have lower environmental impact. As we are encompassing a wide range of processes that occur in the critical zone, from the top of vegetation to groundwater, we are attempting to tackle previously neglected threats such as the deep leaching of nitrogen fertiliser to groundwater.

We will provide a scientific foundation that can be accessed by the IT industry and others to develop simple tools that are accessible to a range of users from farmers to policy-makers.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Government, Democracy and Justice

URL http://www.czo.ac.cn/projects/project-4/
Description Drawing on the results obtained in the first phase of the UK/China CZO projects, we are developing simple tools to help make decisions that guide more sustainable farming practices in China. We are developing Decision Support Tools that are underpinned by critical zone science. This brings in processes involved in landscape evolution, such as geochemistry, deep processes like nitrogen leaching and the impacts of different management practices. New work planned for this year will use a natural capital approach to assess the economic implications of different management approaches. We already have functioning decision support tools that have been developed for the regions where our critical zone observatories are located. Moreover, we have assessed over 400 existing decision support tools, but found that most were inappropriate because they were either too limited or geographically inappropriate for China. Only about a dozen existing DSTs were thought to be suitable for use in China. There was a gap, however, in decision support tools that incorporated both agricultural and economic impacts. Our research is also exploring the use of urban waste streams for fertiliser development. Nutrients are being mined from sewage and manufactured into a product that is not too dissimilar in appearance to conventional chemical fertiliser. There are concerns about pathogens and heavy metals that are being assessed further using advanced molecular biology techniques and plant biochemistry to assess pollutant uptake. We plan to incorporate these findings into unique decision support tools, providing that time is available over the short duration of the project. Impact is being hampered significantly by the winter 2020 coronavirus outbreak. Travel to China is restricted so we are not able to participate in trade shows that are planned for 2020. We hope that the situation improves later in 2020.
First Year Of Impact 2019
Impact Types Societal,Economic,Policy & public services

Description Reducing land degradation and carbon loss from Ethiopia's soils to strengthen livelihoods and resilience (RALENTIR)
Amount £920,774 (GBP)
Funding ID ES/T003073/1 
Organisation Economic and Social Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 11/2019 
End 10/2022
Description Boyi Liang - visiting postdoctoral fellow 
Organisation Peking University
Country China 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Boyi Liang is based at the University of Exeter and is a visiting postdoctoral fellow who is working directly on the project, developing decision support tools. He is funded primarily from Peking University who pay his salary. His work is of vital importance to project delivery and it will hopefully allow us to exceed the project objectives. We are providing direct supervision, with a range of CoIs contributing to his research. He is able to conduct unique work that bridges geochemistry, soil science, hydrology and economics.
Collaborator Contribution There has been direct intellectual input to our research from Peking University collaborators in China.
Impact These will be scientific publications.
Start Year 2019
Description PhD Student - Shunhua Yang. 1 year visit to the University of Aberdeen 
Organisation Chinese Academy of Sciences
Department Institute of Soil Science
Country China 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Jo Smith at the University of Aberdeen hosted Shunhua Yang for 1 year to learn modelling approaches and apply them to CZO data. She provided supervision. During his stay, Shunhua made a direct contribution to the MIDST project, including participation in events. This work was complementary to the core research of the project.
Collaborator Contribution Shunhua Yang is a PhD student from the Institute of Soil Science, Chinese Academy of Sciences. He is supervised by the China PI of the Red Soil Critical Zone project, Prof Ganlin Zhang. The visit allow for greater access to data and enable collaboration by CoIs that would not be possible if Shunhua was not based in Aberdeen.
Impact There are papers that have been submitted for publication during his stay in Aberdeen. All of these involved input from Aberdeen researchers from the MIDST project, which has been either listed in the acknowledgements or as co-authorship depending on the input.
Start Year 2019
Description Stakeholder Workshop 1 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact In April 2019 Prof Paul Hallett, Prof Susan Waldron and Dr Ying Zheng held meetings up the east coast of China as the first Stakeholder Engagement activity for the project.

Guangzhou Guangdong Institute of Eco-Environmental Science and Technology
Guangdong Agricultural Environmental Protection and Rural Energy Station (Government)
Guangdong Fertiliser Office for Farming Land (Government)
Representative of fertiliser company

Yingtan Red Soil Ecological Research Station of CAS
Yujiang Association for Science & Technology (Government)
Yujiang Institute of Agricultural Science
Representatives of large farming households

Nanjing CAS Institute of Soil Science
JAAS Institute of Agricultural Resources and Environment
JAAS Office of International Collaboration
Farm Land Quality and Agricultural Environment Station, Jiangsu Province (Government)

Beijing Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS); UKRI
National Engineering Research Center for Information Technology in Agriculture
National Agro-tech Promotion Center, MOA (Government)

What we learned:
1. About DSTs:
Many existing agricultural DSTs are available in China, including phone apps, WeChat public accounts and chat groups. Touch-screens are available in some villages to provide fertilisation guidance. These DSTs are mainly developed for precision agriculture or formulated fertilisers, focussing on fertiliser efficiency, rotation practice, or organic fertiliser usage to increase crop production.

Current gaps for these DSTs are: a) environmental impact not included but of great interest; b) there is a missing link between soil and water and c) no data from deep layers are used. CZO science and findings can contribute to all these gaps.

2. About stakeholders:
A major driver is the Chinese government aim for zero-growth in mineral fertiliser usage by 2020, coupled with enhanced environmental protection. Most stakeholders are interested in CZO science and data that probe soil and water processes to unprecedented depths. They see the assessment of environment impacts with the CZO approach provides considerable power in predicting non-point pollution, heavy metal risk and GHGs.

For both individual and large farming households, profit still comes as their priority. Improving crop quality has become one of their key considerations, closely related to the greater awareness from the public for better crops. As a result, there is increasing need amongst the farmers to reduce agricultural environmental pollution, particularly from heavy metals, to increase soil and water quality. An awareness of environment protection comes mainly from the large farming households. In addition, it was reported that farmers lack agreed methods of organic fertiliser application.

Many fertiliser companies are keen to collaborate with scientists and government for fertiliser-related agricultural management. With support from government to change from mineral to organic fertilisers, these companies are interested in effective fertiliser application (e.g. what fertilisers for what crops/plants and when to apply).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Stakeholder Workshop 2 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Nanjing Forum: November 21st - 23rd, 2019

Jiangsu Academy of Agricultural Sciences (JAAS), Department of Agriculture and Rural Affairs of Jiangsu Province, Soil society of Jiangsu Province jointly organised 'Symposium on the efficient use of soil, fertiliser and water resources in the Yangtze River Economic Belt' and 'The 5th Jiangsu Academic Forum on Excellent Young Scientists in Soil and Agriculture' on 21st - 23rd November 2019.

MIDST team in attendance:
University of Glasgow: Ying Zheng
University of Aberdeen: Paul Hallett, Joseph Oyesiku Blakemore, Xiangrui Xu
Peking University/University of Exeter: Boyi Liang
Institute of Soil Science, Chinese Academy of Sciences: Shunhua Yang
Nanjing University: Hongyan Guo
Shanxi Normal University: Shuai Li

1. Overall summary

The meeting was attended by 300+ people comprising mainly applied agricultural scientists, with representation from government ministries (?5 people) and industry (?10 people). The aim of the meeting was to bring together experts in agricultural and environmental science in China for discussions on the prevention and control of agricultural non-point source pollution, farmland nutrient management, soil health, and biodiversity conservation. Notable guests included Academicians Prof. Fusuo Zhang, Prof. Zhaoliang Zhu and Prof. Yongguan Zhu. News reports from the meeting included: http://newzhs.jaas.ac.cn/show-1068-589-1.html (News report from JAAS) and http://jsnews.jschina.com.cn/shms/201911/t20191125_2430202.html (News report from Jiangsu net).

MIDST Co-hosted the "Symposium on the experience and problems of the efficient use of soil, fertiliser and water in the Yangtze River Economic Belt" along with the Station of Farmland Quality and Agricultural Environment Protection of Jiangsu Province (See appendix for agenda). Our interest in this meeting was to network with applied agricultural scientists in China who work more closely at the interface between science and farming than the Chinese collaborators on MIDST. JAAS are directly involved in the Peri-Urbon CZO, hosting field trials on the outskirts of Nanjing and providing expertise on agronomic performance of fertlisers derived from waste. We sought input from scientists and agricultural specialists on practical needs from Decision Support Tools (DSTs) targeted at improved agricultural and environmental performance. This was achieved through the hosting of this symposium and an exhibitor stand.

Our symposium had a number of very relevant talks for DST developments. There were 10 talks that covered new fertilisers, machinery, environmental concerns and farmer engagement. Dr Ying Zheng finished the talks in the session by providing an overview of the MIDST project, summarising the work of the UK-China CZO programme. The practical challenges and policy relevance of our research was emphasised by our invited speaker, Director Du Sen of the Ministry of Agriculture. All talks were in Mandarin to ensure full engagement of the Chinese audience. We followed the talks with an open panel session discussion which provided the floor with the opportunity to ask all speakers questions. This included a targeted discussion on research needs for DST development in China.

On Day 2 of the meeting, MIDST collaborator Prof Yongguan Zhu provided a talk that celebrated his very recent award as a CAS Academician. This was followed by another discussion forum on challenges facing agriculture and soils in China. Both Paul Hallett and Ying Zheng participated on stage to provide their insight and to guide questions towards DST development.

MIDST had an Exhibition Stand throughout the entirety of the event. This had an animation of one of our functional DSTs, computers running other DSTs that we have tested for application in China, and pamphlets in both English and Mandarin summarising the project and aimed at either users or researchers. There was considerable 1:1 discussion, reaching over 100 people. To enable guided discussion, questionairres were given to participants to ask about their knowledge, experience, perceptions and needs for DSTs. The MIDST post docs and 2 PhD students managed to get conference participants to complete 65 individuals.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL http://www.czo.ac.cn/category/news/research-news/
Description TalkRadio - National radio interview with Penny Smith 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact 10 minute radio interview. Presenters asked questions about threats to soils and possible solutions. Answers included direct mention to the following research:
1. BBSRC Rhizosphere by Design - new crop varieties that are more sustainable and can improve soils.
2. NERC MIDST - global challenges to soil resources, with China used as an example.
3. BBSRC NUCLEUS - innovative solutions for more sustainable soil management coming from Brazil
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://talkradio.co.uk/saturday-breakfast-with-penny-smith