Top researchers sow the seeds for 'smart' farming

Updated: 2016-08-12 07:57

By Cecily Liu(China Daily Europe)

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China and Britain have begun a three-year agricultural technology collaboration project aimed at advancing sustainable farms

China and Britain started a 1.3 million pound ($1.7 million; 1.5 million euros) joint research project on sustainable agricultural technology in July, marking the latest addition to farming cooperation between the two countries.

The three-year project, with input from six universities, focuses on improving the efficiency of remote sensing so that farmers in China can apply water and nutrients to fields that need them the most, based on data gathered by remote sensing tools. The project started with the Chinese researchers' first UK visit on July 18.

Such technology is considered especially important for China's farming industry, and the project is exploring its use for sustainable farming in a way it has not been used anywhere in the world.

By the third year, researchers expect to apply the technology in pilot areas of Chinese farms, and if successful, wider deployment will take place.

"Working with China in this research project is very important because China has large areas of farmland, so the results can have a wide impact," says Wen-Hua Chen, a professor specializing in autonomous vehicles at the University of Loughborough, who is leading a research team.

"In addition, these solutions from our research will lead to more efficient use of water and nutrients and hence reduce pollution, which is a very important goal for China and globally."

The research will first develop a method for different remote sensing tools, including satellites and drones, to coordinate in monitoring crops, identifying areas that need water and nutrients the most, so these can be selectively applied to improve environmental sustainability.

Top researchers sow the seeds for 'smart' farming

The research will also design flight paths for unmanned aircraft so that they can avoid physical obstacles like mountains. It also will produce a system to selectively present information to farmers about their fields, so they do not have to sort through lots of images to identify patches with concerns.

This so-called smart farming project is the latest phase of the established agricultural collaboration between Britain and China, which picked up momentum with the UK-China Science Year in 2005, and an agricultural research conference hosted in Shanxi province.

China is the largest contributor to world agricultural output - in 2014, the country contributed 21.06 percent, followed by India with 7.68 percent.

Another milestone was reached in 2008 when an agreement on agricultural collaboration was signed between the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture and the UK's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

In the same year, the China-UK Sustainable Agriculture Innovation Network was established.

Fourteen universities are involved in the network's research projects and there are more than a dozen joint research projects involving agriculture between the two countries. The goal is to translate the results of the research into policy and farming practices.

Existing projects cover areas such as efficient use of agricultural resources, making farming resilient to climate change and reducing water and air pollution. Some results have already been reported to China's National Development and Reform Commission.

Lu Yuelai, the network's head of secretariat, says UK agriculture sustainability development started earlier and the UK already has a lot of experience to share with China; at the same time, significant investment into agricultural research by the Chinese government has meant China is now leading in a number of areas including biotechnology, environmental protection and remote sensing technology.

Pete Smith, a professor of soils and global change at the University of Aberdeen, adds that the British agricultural sector has undergone significant changes over the past 20 to 30 years in reducing its impact on the environment, partly due to compliance with increasingly strict EU legislation, and the UK is able to share its experience with China.

Meanwhile, China's unique challenges in agriculture also make joint academic research significant. China's challenges include its large population on limited land, and China's fast-changing dietary preferences, he says.

Smith's team is working with other British and Chinese universities on a three-year project to increase crops' ability to absorb more nitrogen, so that fewer greenhouse gases will be released into the air.

(China Daily European Weekly 08/12/2016 page27)