China’s agriculture is increasing its productivity and developing rapidly, but low efficiency of N use through over-fertilization 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. This China-UK VJC 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 to develop a multi-scale perspective, implemented through the Cool Farm Tool (CFT) for both commercial and scientific purposes. The CFT is ideal for identifying crucial points for intervention, to elicit targeted innovations, to explain and promote adoption, and to assess 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. All research and extension activities will involve bilateral exchanges and training to build technical expertise, 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 adoption of the N-Circle concepts and philosophy within agriculture and among consumers.

Several immediate technological opportunities make this an apt time for tightening the agricultural N cycle in China, including (i) availability of understanding and technology to manipulate soil microbial communities for desired function, (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 more closely to end-user requirements.

Exciting technological synergies are feasible if the 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 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) 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) greater understanding of the mechanisms underpinning agricultural management for sustainable N cycling, (ii) a rigorous evaluation of the potential for sustainable N cycling to deliver future sustainable intensification of Chinese agriculture and (iii) an agenda to achieve this.

Overview of Virtual Joint Centre’s Aims and Objectives and Main Activities

The central objective underlying the ‘N-Circle’ VJC is to quantify the interdependence between industrial or biological N2 fixation for agriculture, and agricultural emissions of ammonia (NH3), nitrate (NO3) and nitrous oxide (N2O) i.e. how N inputs cause N emissions. Sustainable intensification of agriculture in China depends on reducing both, whilst continuing to enhance production. N-Circle will set an agenda for ‘closing’ agricultural cycling of N in China. N-Circle will employ ensemble modelling to estimate N inputs, transformations, transfers and emissions for China’s principal farming systems, and to identify points for technological intervention, so to set targets for innovation. N-Circle’s bilateral research teams will then focus on the key targets expected to provide the largest or most synergistic impacts on N inputs and N emissions, such as fertiliser formulation, soil management, crop genetics and management, feed formulation, and manure treatment and manure distribution.

N-Circle will hold this comprehensive overview of the agricultural N cycle in China so that it retains the capacity to effect innovation and change at the most vital points, and to build appreciation of interdependencies amongst agricultural practitioners. For example, the potential to reduce fertiliser N use by adopting low grain protein varieties cannot be realised unless grain users develop food-processing/feed formulation methods that avoid a need for high protein grain. The specific objectives are:

  1. Define a range of options to deliver closed-loop N cycling in Chinese agro-ecosystems
  2. Define practices to enhance recovery of applied N, both from fertiliser & manure
  3. Provide options to reduce GHG emissions due to N applications
  4. Devise rotations and cropping practices that maximise leguminous N fixation and uptake
  5. Define mechanisms to reduce crop N demand, by
    1. Predicting canopy N demand;
    2. Maximising C & N fixation & harvest;
    3. Minimising grain N demand by grain protein manipulation
  6. Quantify the role of reducing end-user demand for N and N excretion by livestock
  7. Demonstrate impacts of objectives 1-6 through case studies at farm, catchment & regional scales
  8. Provide multi-level (farmer, extension service, regional / national policy-maker) out-reach and dissemination

Each of these objectives will be addressed in a dedicated Work Package. In a 3 year programme, bilateral teams from leading academic groups (at the Universities of Aberdeen and Cambridge and at SRUC in the UK, and at eight agricultural academies or universities in China) will undertake the fundamental research necessary to achieve the aims of each work-package. Science application will be effected by employing novel translational techniques developed by the land innovation consultancy ADAS in the UK and through participative research organised by CAU, CAAS & CAS in China.

Outcomes and Impacts

The ultimate outcomes of the ‘N-Circle’ Centre will be (i) greater understanding of the mechanisms underpinning agricultural management for sustainable N cycling, (ii) a rigorous evaluation of the potential for sustainable N cycling to deliver future sustainable intensification of Chinese and the UK agriculture and (iii) an agenda and the infrastructure to achieve this. Exciting technological synergies are feasible if the 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.

The Consortium

The N-Circle Centre is a collaboration between the Universities of Aberdeen, Cambridge and East Anglia, Edinburgh, SRUC, and ADAS and NIAB in the UK, and the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, China Agricultural University, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing Normal University, Capital Normal University, Nanjing Agricultural University, Nanjing Normal University, and Zhejiang University in China.

The N-Circle Centre is working in partnership with the UK-China Sustainable Agriculture Innovation Network (SAIN).

The Funders

Over the three years from 2016, the N-Circle Centre will receive almost £3 million from the BBSRC and Newton Fund, and over £4 million from sources in China.

References: Duan YH et al. 2014. Field Crops Res.157, 47-56; Fan MS et al. 2012. J. Exp. Bot. 63, 13-24