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.


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Liang B (2020) Analysing and simulating spatial patterns of crop yield in Guizhou Province based on artificial neural networks in Progress in Physical Geography: Earth and Environment

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Hallett P (2020) Preface to the special issue on biohydrology dedicated to the memory of Dr. Louis W. Dekker in Journal of Hydrology and Hydromechanics

Description MIDST-CZO is using cutting-edge science from the UK/China Critical Zone Observatory projects to develop the foundation of a new class of decision support tools (DSTs) to support agriculture and the environment at the same time. Economic impacts of agricultural management decisions are also being considered by adopting the natural capital approach. Another facet of the research is to close resource loops in peri-urban agriculture by making better use of urban waste to produce fertilisers where nutrients are mined from sewage and other urban organic waste streams. Knowledge exchange is pivotal to the success of the project. We actively conduct socio-economic surveys in China to learn about demands for DSTs to support agriculture, based on existing gaps in available tools and improvements that could be made to increase uptake of DST use. In collaboration with China, we have produced functional DSTs for policy makers that aim to improve farming decisions to decrease environmental threats. The vast dataset generated from the UK/China CZO programme has also been used to develop new models that describe the interaction between agriculture and environmental processes. These will help form the foundation of future DSTs.

We have now completed just over 2 years of research on this project. The past year, 2020, was severely affected by COVID-19 restrictions, which was addressed to some extent by a no-cost 12-month extension and adaptation of our knowledge exchange activities with China.

A critical activity to project delivery is Stakeholder Workshop 2 (WP1). In early 2019 we had Stakeholder Consultations with a number of groups through face-to-face meetings covering broad geographical regions of China from Guangzhou to Beijing. We also held Stakeholder Workshop 1 later in 2019 in collaboration with the Jiangsu Academy of Agricultural Sciences. This provided broader interaction with stakeholders at the interface between science and policy. From these activities, we have learnt that targeting agricultural industry conferences will increase the reach of our work for Stakeholder Workshop 2. Webinars and online surveys also formed part of our original KE activities with China. These have been enhanced to maintain continuity during the COVID-19 lockdown, but they do not replace the need for face-to-face interaction with stakeholders.

Work continued analysing knowledge exchange activities, informed by questionnaires and surveys conducted on previous visits and enhanced by new online surveys. We found that communication from government to farmers differed between regions in China, so local solutions would be needed. In some regions, farmers relied too much on fertiliser providers to make decisions, based primarily on crop yield. However, provincial agricultural research institutes in China are actively addressing knowledge exchange through the provision of online platforms, simple decision support tools and training. There is a strong demand for improved tools to address environmental threats caused by agriculture. Some existing DSTs to address yield and fertiliser use, such as Nutrient Expert, work extremely well, but could be extended to consider environmental impacts.

A challenge with survey work is reaching a wide audience, particularly when travel is constrained due to COVID-19 restrictions. Animations with Mandarin and English voiceovers were created to publicise the CZO projects in China. We also established a number of online delivery platforms, such as a WeChat public account that has attracted over 1000 reads to some articles we have posted. Summary sheets are continuously being prepared from our research outputs to be targeted at lay audiences. We also produced a new online survey to understand the needs, habits and preference in the use and development of DST to support evidence-based decision making and promote decision support tools for agricultural management in China. The target audience is civil servants, researchers, and relevant personnel engaged in agricultural work.

A desk study on decision support tool (DSTs) use in China's agriculture found over 400 working examples. Weaknesses included a focus on yield, without consideration of environmental and economic impacts. The data are analysed and a paper will be submitted in 2021 by the University of Aberdeen team. China has a strong research programme developing DSTs for agriculture. One of the leading tools is Nutrient Expert, which is very effective at improving nutrient use efficiency for a range of crops across China.

Rothamsted Research and their partners in China worked with a DST to predict the interaction between soil carbon storage and crop yield for the Loess Plateau. This couples agricultural output with environmental impacts. Further work needs face-to-face interaction, but a paper is expected this year.

Dr Boyi Liang from Peking University completed a visiting fellowship at the University of Exeter in 2020 that was aligned to MIDST. He continues to conduct CZO research complementary to the project and produced a paper using neural networks to predict crop yield.

A new postdoctoral scientist will join the team at the University of Exeter in 2021 to bring together agricultural, environmental and economic modelling to drive a new class of DSTs.

Research continued at the Peri-Urban CZOs. Nanjing University and Leeds University furthered their partnership with joint PhDs as part of a Key Belt Project. Chemical (Queens University Belfast) and microbial (Sheffield University) analysis continues with some delays due to restricted lab and field access. A CSC funded PhD student working at the University of Sheffield for 1 year is exploring fertiliser impact, including the use of composted manure on environmental impacts.
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,Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice

URL http://www.czo.ac.cn
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 remains restricted into 2021 so we are not able to conduct impact work in China. We are uncertain about the ability to travel to China before March 2022 when the project ends.
First Year Of Impact 2019
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice
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 Agri-environmental DST Deployment - Link to JAAS 
Organisation Jiangsu Academy of Agricultural Sciences
Country China 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution We hosted our Stakeholder Workshop 2 in partnership with JAAS. Jiangsu is one of the most agriculturally productive and richest provinces in China, so the applied nature of their research enabled us to interact with a broad range of stakeholders at their meeting ''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. We organised special sessions at this meeting, including talks on decision support tools for agriculture in China where we hosted Director Du Sen from the China Ministry of Environment as an invited speaker. MIDST-CZO hosted an exhibition stand where we displayed a functioning bespoke DST on a large screen and allowed for interaction with other DSTs that were loaded on laptop computers. Dozens of stakeholders and scientists completed a knowledge exchange questionnaire that asked about DST familiarity, usage and demands in China.
Collaborator Contribution Our partners provided an ideal meeting to interact with a broad range of stakeholders in China. They organised all key aspects of the meeting and attracted delegates. We contributed to the costs of conference organisation. The partnership with JAAS extends beyond this meeting to consultation on DST development. They host a range of online tools that have assisted considerably in determining best approaches to disseminate new tools and current weaknesses in available tools.
Impact '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.
Start Year 2019
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 Encyclopedia of Soils and the Environment 
Organisation Desert Research Institute
Country United States 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution Co-Editing Soil Physics section of Encyclopaedia. This has about 80 entries, including - Soil Sensors Critical Zone Science Root-Soil Interactions Erosion Water Harvesting Soil Structure
Collaborator Contribution Paul Hallett and Dani Or (DRI) are working together as the Section Editors.
Impact Encylopedia 2nd edition to be published in 2022.
Start Year 2020
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 CZO Webinar in Chinese 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact A recorded webinar in Mandarin was prepared that provided an overview of Critical Zone Observatory research from MIDST and the previous NSFC/UKRI CZO programme. This provided highlights from our CZO research, including the discovery of deep nitrogen, risks of contaminant transport in peri-urban soils and the link between geology, climate, vegetation and climate that drove CZO development at our different observatories in China. The webinar ended with an overview of how this research is being brought together to provide underpinning science for the deployment of China focussed decision support tools striving to improve the environmental and economic impact of agriculture at the same time.

The webinar was emailed directly to our stakeholder network and released on a dedicated channel on WeChat.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020,2021
Description Microbiology Society - Soil Health Case Study 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Paul Hallett participated in a focus group exploring the role of soil microbiology in soil science research. In this he emphasised the need for interdisciplinary science deploying the latest technologies.

He wrote a case study intended to guide future funding initiatives.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://microbiologysociety.org/our-work/75th-anniversary-a-sustainable-future/soil-health/soil-heal...
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