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New centre aims to tackle problem of pollution from agriculture

A major new £7 million centre is being established between UK and Chinese scientists to tackle the issues of nitrogen use and pollution from agriculture.

The virtual centre is led by the University of Aberdeen with partners from the University of East Anglia, the University of Cambridge, Scotland's Rural College (SRUC) and the Agricultural Development and Advisory Service (ADAS), as well as nine leading partner institutions from China.

The centre, which will be called N-Circle to emphasise the focus on recycling nitrogen resources and closing the nitrogen cycle – known as N Cycle - will receive almost £3 million from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Newton Fund, and over £4 million from sources in China.

The initiative will be led by Prof Pete Smith from the Institute of Biological and Environmental Sciences at the University of Aberdeen, who said: “Nitrogen is used as a fertilizer to improve agricultural productivity, but pollution from overuse or misuse of nitrogen causes issues for soil, water and air quality, as well as being a major cause of climate change. It is therefore essential to tackle nitrogen inputs, transfers and losses to allow us to produce the food we need to feed 9-10 billion people by 2050, without wrecking the environment in the process.

“China uses more nitrogen fertilisers than any other country in the world, so is a critical region to tackle the nitrogen problem. Europe still has room for improvement but has successfully reduced nitrogen pollution over the last three decades so, with our Chinese partners, we will bring this good agricultural practice to China, and together will enhance the latest scientific understanding to develop innovative solutions for improved nitrogen use efficiency on both continents.”

Dr Yuelai Lu, of UEA’s School of International Development and Head of Secretariat of the UK China Sustainable Agriculture Innovation Network (SAIN), said: “Efficient use of nitrogen fertiliser plays a key role in sustainable intensification of China’s agriculture. This timely and multidisciplinary project will help to translate our understanding of the N Cycle into practical solutions to support China’s agricultural transition.”

Prof Roger Sylvester-Bradley of ADAS welcomed the new funding and particularly that the funders had recognised the importance of the new centre addressing all aspects of the N Cycle, from soil microbiology to crop protein storage and livestock nutrition.

Prof Sir David Baulcombe, Prof Chris Gilligan and Prof Howard Griffiths, of the Department of Plant Sciences, University of Cambridge, emphasized that N-Circle will foster research capacity in important areas including crop yield and grain quality. They commented: "This proposal helps to consolidate our Crop Science initiative at Cambridge and the collaboration with our partners in the UK and China will help us to translate fundamental research into agronomic practice.”

Prof Bob Rees, Head of the Carbon Management Centre at SRUC, said: “This project provides a unique opportunity to bring together leading scientists in the UK and China to address the challenge of balancing the increased demands for food with environmental protection and sustainability.”

N-Circle aims to become self-perpetuating beyond the current three years’ worth of funding. It will strengthen existing scientific collaborations between the UK and Chinese partners, and aims to provide not only cutting edge science, but also improved practice on farms in China and in the UK. The new N-Circle Centre will begin its work early in 2016.

Image: Sam Hakes/morgueFile

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