Agriculture in China: ADAS expertise can help address the challenge of sustainable Chinese food security

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China feeds 21% of the world’s population with only nine percent of the global arable land area1. Only about 10-15% of the land in China can be cultivated and 40% of this is irrigated. There have been massive improvements in productivity in the last 20 years, however, China uses more fertiliser than any other country – over 550 kg/ha compared to around 250 kg/ha in the UK.

Agriculture in China: ADAS expertise can help address the challenge of sustainable Chinese food security

China’s 1.4 billion population and their changing diet are putting more pressure on an already stressed agricultural system. The Chinese government is now focusing on reforming agriculture, including improving farm efficiency in a bid to use technology to make farms higher yielding, but without the increasing inputs of fertilisers and chemicals that have occurred in recent decades. 
With ADAS’s long experience in agricultural extension, we have much to offer through supporting agricultural research & extension in China. We are currently undertaking proof-of-concept research, particularly concerning the use of new technologies and data, and testing how ideas, tools and knowledge developed in the UK might be extended into Chinese contexts. Interestingly, Chinese ideas on extension could also prove useful in the UK.

The challenge is in engaging an agricultural sector that is organised very differently to that in the UK. A typical Chinese farm is less than an acre in size and worked by hand, making it more difficult to implement changes on the ground to close the yield gap and better manage inputs. A novel approach to addressing this challenge has been implemented recently by China Agricultural University (CAU) in Beijing, and is known as the Science and Technology Backyard (STB). This approach involves stationing agricultural scientists, often post-graduate students, amongst smallholder farmers in their villages, with the aim of increasing participation in innovative farming methods by demonstrations, training and advice. A trial of this approach raised five-year average wheat and maize yields from 68% to 97% of the attainable level on target farms. There is currently a network of 82 STBs across several of the agricultural zones in China and this has much scope to be extended and coordinated across China. ADAS has been scoping how the STB platform might be supported, and developing new approaches for more sustainable Chinese agriculture, as follows.

Crop intelligence for yield enhancement

ADAS is looking to work with universities and industry in China to develop a ‘Yield Enhancement Network’ (YEN). As in the UK, the new YEN would encourage Chinese farmers to see crops mainly as energy (and water) converters, because this challenges the notion that yields relate to chemical inputs. To support this, ADAS recently delivered a Network+ feasibility study to evaluate the opportunities for using ‘Crop Intelligence Systems’ (CIS) in China; these integrate satellite, soil and weather data to provide meaningful metrics of energy and water capture by crops across fields and farms and so to support optimal crop management decisions. Such a system could also support farmers in the UK and elsewhere in the world.

Improving resource use efficiency

In 2015 ADAS helped initiate a Virtual Joint Centre called ‘N-Circle’ with UK Universities of Aberdeen, Cambridge, East Anglia and SRUC, plus nine institutions in China. N-Circle focuses on recycling nitrogen resources and closing the nitrogen cycle. ADAS has a strong track record in the development of nutrient management decision support tools for the farming community in the UK. Good management of manufactured fertiliser and organic manure applied to land is essential to help farmers grow enough food whilst minimising harm to the environment. Tools such as PLANET and MANNER-NPK have become industry standard software for nutrient management in the UK. A small Network+ project led by ADAS brings together leading professionals and researchers in the UK and China to assess whether the UK frameworks could be used to build nutrient management decision support tools relevant to Chinese agricultural systems.

Managing environmental risks

ADAS is currently involved in the ‘CropFall’ project with Universities of Birmingham and Lancaster, China Agricultural University and CIMMYT. The research is developing satellite data and modelling to identify regions and fields with the highest risk of lodging in rice and maize. A knowledge exchange programme, including three international workshops, will establish collaborations between Chinese and UK research groups to share ideas and explore opportunities to develop appropriate decision support tools.

For more information, please contact Roger Sylvester-Bradley ( or Lucy Wilson (

 1 FAO, 2017

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