Managing water scarcity in European and Chinese cropping systems

In the frame of their General Assembly at BOKU on the 13th of April 2021, 18 experts of the EU-project WaterAgri visited the weighing lysimeters at the Experimental Farm Groß-Enzersdorf of BOKU Vienna.

The site is ideal to study hydrological processes as basis for agricultural water management. Recently, evaporation and transpiration of soybean were determined using a water stable isotope technique (Liebhard et al., 2022). The measurements are available via the Shui Management Data Tool together with data sets from other Shui partners.

Hence, Shui and WaterAgri are connected on a personal level, but also via datasets and databases.

In Land

Authors: Nina Noreika, Tailin Li, Julie Winterova, Josef Krasa and Tomas Dostal

Abstract

Reinforcing the small water cycle is considered to be a holistic approach to both water resource and landscape management. In an agricultural landscape, this can be accomplished by incorporating agricultural conservation practices; their incorporation can reduce surface runoff, increase infiltration, and increase the water holding capacity of a soil. Some typical agricultural conservation practices include: conservation tillage, contour farming, residue incorporation, and reducing field sizes; these efforts aim to keep both water and soil in the landscape. The incorporation of such practices has been extensively studied over the last 40 years. The Soil and Water Assessment Tool (SWAT) was used to model two basins in the Czech Republic (one at the farm-scale and a second at the management-scale) to determine the effects of agriculture conservation practice adoption at each scale. We found that at the farm-scale, contour farming was the most effective practice at reinforcing the small water cycle, followed by residue incorporation. At the management-scale, we found that the widespread incorporation of agricultural conservation practices significantly reinforced the small water cycle, but the relative scale and spatial distribution of their incorporation were not reflected in the SWAT scenario analysis. Individual farmers should be incentivized to adopt agricultural conservation practices, as these practices can have great effects at the farm-scale. At the management-scale, the spatial distribution of agricultural conservation practice adoption was not significant in this study, implying that managers should incentivize any adoption of such practices and that the small water cycle would be reinforced regardless.

Read the full paper here.

Early on a March Friday morning, at least for UK and EU participants, 40 scientists from 7 countries (Austria, China, Czech Republic, Greece, Italy, UK and Spain)  dedicated their time to better understanding the news cycle to ensure their research is accessible to the general public. The session was convened on Zoom, presented by Isabel Mendoza (SHui’s community engagement officer) and open to those inside and outside of the consortium. Goals of the training were to introduce participants to necessary skills to increase the societal impact of their research and to help SHui consortium members populate the SHui and EIP-Agri websites with practice abstracts of SHui outputs in a language accessible for farmers and end-users.

While scientists often communicate in very precise terms by qualifying their message and introducing (statistical) uncertainty, this does not necessarily apply to science journalists in search of a good story. Ideally, work with the journalist to ensure you are quoted correctly within the specific
context you recognise.

An excellent illustration of this is the cartoon below, where a mere correlation (eagle-eyed readers will recognise it’s not statistically significant!) has resulted in behavioural change as successive “news reporters” sought to enhance the possibilities.

A challenge may be that much research, although contributing to a broader understanding, is context-dependent or incremental. While all scientists might aspire to publish in Nature or Science, not all outputs even in these journals are likely to attract journalist attention. Nevertheless, well-crafted press releases, reports and even blog posts can attract significant attention, and University Press Offices can play a vital role in disseminating news stories post-publication. As part of the session, we reviewed 2 headlines released by different institutions following collaborative research, and it was telling how important a good headline was. “Panicking plants” trumped “stress-responsive genes”!

It was pleasing that the audience was prepared to interact via polls in the online chat and commented on a range of items related to the newsworthiness of the press releases discussed. Namely: reputation, expertise, authenticity, research group visibility, deep citizen engagement, current issue in the public sphere, closeness, newness, reproducibility and human interest.

As a follow-up, SHui researchers were invited to set up a one-to-one meeting during the SHui assembly in Murcia in April with Isabel Mendoza to discuss their writing samples or contact her at any time via email.

Resources

Slides are available here.

Webometrics (CSIC) provides tools to check online visibility of Universities and Research Centers.

Author: Vasileios Giannakopoulos, Lancaster University

My research primarily focuses on how plants respond to environmental conditions (drought and atmospheric stresses). Last year I completed my Ph.D. studies at Lancaster Environment Centre, and I investigated the effects of soil-surfactants on cereal growth and physiology (both barley and maize) in drying soil. During this time, I worked with a commercial company that manufactures surfactants. My recent postdoctoral contract was in the RECIRCULATE project where I worked on improving irrigation techniques for rice crops grown in Western Africa.

During the SHui Project, I will investigate maize responses to drought stress, specifically its rhizosheath formation. Rhizosheath is defined as soil particles that adhere to roots during soil drying, due to presence of root hairs and root exudates. Rhizosheath is a promising trait to help improve plant tolerance to abiotic stress since it has a higher water content than bulk soil and occurs in many plants, including agriculturally important crops such as maize and other mesophytic and desert grasses. However, whether the rhizosheath promotes plant stress resilience is still debated. Thus, this work aims to investigate whether and how rhizosheath development facilitates plant water availability and growth in maize.

Figure 1: Rhizosheath quantification and root length measurement.

What excites me about Shui Project is the interdisciplinary nature since it comprises a diverse group of international scientists. This work will contribute to maximize water use for food production and support farmers by increasing plant resilience to abiotic stress, in a changing climate.

In the middle of 21st century, global population will reach 9 billion people and the ability of current agricultural systems to maintain the high food demands is a substantial issue. At the same time, continuous population growth and climate change limit availability of water that is considered as the main restraint of crop productivity. Hence, water scarcity is considered as a global systemic risk. It is important to better understand the mechanisms underlying plant stress resilience to better design future crop improvement strategies.

Author: Ryan Edge

With a boot full of cover crops, a back seat crowded with posters and  a strong coffee secured firmly in the cup holder, we were ready for our trip to the Low Carbon Agriculture Show. After the slow post-lockdown return to fields and laboratories, this marked another big step towards “normality” with an in-person outreach and engagement event. Dr Ryan Edge and Professor John Quinton were our men in the field, representing SHui at this important agricultural trade show.

More than just pushing low carbon initiatives, the show is about promoting businesses and technologies that support long term sustainable farming initiatives. Held in the centre of the UK, the event attracts farmers and support businesses from right across the country. We met people from as far south as Somerset to as far North as the Scottish border. Our mission was broad but simple. As part of a wider Lancaster team including another European-Chinese project Tudi , we aimed to spend two days talking to the public about some of the amazing work going on in SHui and gaining insights into how we may better align our research and outputs to meet the needs of local farmers. As first timers at this long running show, this was an opportunity for us to reach out and engage with an audience that we’d not usually interact with in the academic sector.

Overall, people were very receptive and highly engaged with our stall. Interest in the SHui project was primarily regarding the field trials we have running in Cumbria, as well as some of the irrigation models produced by the project. A particular highlight was the often-lively debate on the use of cover cropping for maize. Topics ranged from a simple whether it was worthwhile in the first place, to the timing of planting and the best species to use. The result of these debates will inform our final field trials. This demonstrated the value of attending events such as this, where you can benefit from the combined knowledge of people that have worked with these crops in real farming systems for generations.

The scope of the show in terms of both people and scale were almost overwhelming. We estimate to have spoken to more than 300 individuals. These ranged from single farmers to those that represented large consortiums, many of which were more than happy to distribute our contact details and newsletters across their networks. Conservatively, we reached over 1000 people over two days. What was most telling is that many people were surprised to see us there. We took this as a good sign that we were reaching new audiences and getting a fresh perspective on the project.

On the long drive back to university, I had plenty of time to reflect on our two days at the show. In a world that now seems dominated by online meetings and the ubiquitous phrase “I think your microphone is still muted” it is important not to lose sight of the value of the unhindered debate and spontaneity that is intrinsic to real world interactions, but is often missing from the more controlled, and in every sense of the word, more sterile online environment.

In Frontiers in Environmental Science

Authors: David Ramler, Marc Stutter, Gabriele Weigelhofer, John N. Quinton, Rebecca Hood-Nowotny and Peter Strauss

Abstract

Vegetative filter strips (VFS) are best management practices with the primary aim of protecting surface waters from eutrophication resulting from excess nutrient inputs from agricultural sources. However, we argue that there is a substantial time and knowledge lag from the science underpinning VFS to policy and implementation. Focussing on phosphorus (P), we strive to introduce a holistic view on VFS that accounts for the whole functional soil volume, temporal and seasonal effects, the geospatial context, the climatic and physico-chemical basic conditions, and the intricate bio-geochemical processes that govern nutrient retention, transformation, and transport. Specifically, we suggest a step-wise approach to custom VFS designs that links and matches the incoming P from event to multi-annual timescales from the short- and mid-term processes of P retention in the effective soil volume and to the longer-term P retention and offtake coupled to the soil-vegetation system. An a priori assessment of the P export potential should be followed by bespoke VFS designs, in line with local conditions and socio-economic and ecological constraints. To cope with increasingly nutrient saturated or functionally insufficient VFS installed over the last decades, concepts and management strategies need to encompass the transition in understanding of VFS as simple nutrient containers to multifunctional buffer zones that have a complex inner life. We need to address these associated emerging challenges and integrate their implications more thoroughly into VFS research, monitoring, policy, and implementation than ever before. Only then we may get VFS that are effective, sustainable, and persistent.

Read the full paper here.

In Precision Agriculture

Authors: L. Katz, A. Ben-Gal, M. I. Litaor, A. Naor, M. Peres, I. Bahat, Y. Netzer, A. Peeters, V. Alchanatis & Y. Cohen

Abstract

Wide assimilation of precision agriculture among farmers is currently dependent on the ability to demonstrate its efficiency at the field-scale. Yet, most experiments that compare variable-rate vs uniform application (VRA and UA) are performed in strips, concentrated in a small portion of the field with limited extrapolation to the field scale. A spatiotemporal normalized ratio (STNR) methodology is proposed to evaluate the impact of VRA compared with UA for on-farm trials at the field scale. It incorporates a base year in which the whole plot is managed with UA and consecutive years in which half of the plot is managed with UA and the other half is managed with VRA. Additionally, a novel normalized relative comparison index (NRCI) is presented where the ratios of VRA/UA sub-plots are compared between a base year and a consecutive year, for any measured parameter. The NRCI determines the impact of VRA on variability using statistical measures of dispersion (variability measures) and on performance with statistical measures of central tendency (performance measures). Variability measures with NRCI values lower or higher than 1 indicate VRA management decreased or increased variability. Performance measures with NRCI lower or higher than 1 indicate subplot impairment or improvement, respectively due to VRA management. The methodology was demonstrated on a commercial drip irrigated peach orchard and a wine grape vineyard. NRCI results showed that VRA drip irrigation reduced water status in-field variability but did not necessarily increase yield. The benefits and limitations of the proposed design are discussed.

Read the full paper here.

In Land Use Policy

Authors: G.Guzmán, A.Boumahdi, J.A.Gómez

Abstract

The sustainability of farming systems has been enhanced by legislation on different scales, but at the same time these policies also promote more productive systems through farming intensification (e.g., use of irrigation or high tree densities). This is the case of olive orchard expansion on cereal cropland in recent decades. This study analyses the impact of this expansion on orchard characteristics and landscape elements in a case study in the ’campiña‘ of Cordoba in Southern Spain based on the evolution of their surface and typologies during the period from 2005 to 2018. Our results show that olive orchards doubled their surface after the 13-year period, from 7997.8 to 16,447.6 ha. On average the new orchards tended to have higher plant density and a more frequent use of irrigation in the study period. Despite this trend towards intensification, the current situation shows a majority of rainfed (76.4%) and medium tree densities, 120–200 trees/ha, (42.7%) of the area. Nevertheless, newly intensified orchards are arising in the region, resulting in a mosaic of orchards of different characteristics (slope, tree density, soil type) and agricultural managements (irrigation, ground cover vegetation).

In addition, this characterization was complemented with an inventory of the existing semi-natural elements associated with these orchards to identify the current state of the regional agricultural landscape. A total number of 507 isolated trees and different linear and polygonal landscape elements (343.9 km and 714.0 ha, respectively), mainly segmented, were inventoried. From these polygonal landscape elements, a significant fraction (e.g., slopes, gullies, water banks and non-productive strips/faces) remains unvegetated (57%). Therefore, these elements must be considered in multiscale agricultural policies as potential restoration areas to enhance ecosystem service provisioning.

Read the paper here.

In Pedosphere

Authors: Mehtab Muhammad ASLAM, Eyalira J. OKAL, Aisha Lawan IDRIS, Zhang QIAN, Weifeng XU, Joseph K. KARANJA, Shabir H. WANI, Wei YUAN

Abstract

Beneficial root-associated rhizospheric microbes play a key role in maintaining host plant growth and can potentially allow drought-resilient crop production. The complex interaction of root-associated microbes mainly depends on soil type, plant genotype, and soil moisture. However, drought is the most devastating environmental stress that strongly reduces soil biota and can restrict plant growth and yield. In this review, we discussed our mechanistic understanding of drought and microbial response traits. Additionally, we highlighted the role of beneficial microbes and plant-derived metabolites in alleviating drought stress and improving crop growth. We proposed that future research might focus on evaluating the dynamics of root-beneficial microbes under field drought conditions. The integrative use of ecology, microbial, and molecular approaches may serve as a promising strategy to produce more drought-resilient and sustainable crops.

Read the paper here.

Despite the Christmas season being busy, over 90 registered for SHui’s 5th webinar, entitled Quantifying the Soil-Plant-Atmosphere Continuum. Continuing the trend established by SHui’s September General Assembly, this hybrid event allowed participants to either attend in-person in Lancaster or online on Teams. Although most speakers attended in person, Dr Katharina Huntenburg of the National Institute of Agricultural Botany and Dr Andrew Hirons of University College Myerscough presented remotely. Developing new measurement techniques and applying existing instrumentation in novel ways was a recurrent theme of the symposium, with speakers and attendees drawn from both the academic and commercial worlds.

1 – John Quinton (Lancaster): Detecting soil degradation and restoration
2 – Ryan Edge (Lancaster): Root-soil interactions enhancing crop-soil functions
3 – Vasileios Giannakopoulos (Lancaster): Surfactant effects on plant water relations
4 – Katharina Huntenburg (Lancaster & NIAB): Using MRI to quantify soil and tuber water content of potatoes
5 – Andy Hirons (Lancaster & Myerscough College): Novel techniques for irrigating trees in the nursery
6 – Tony Peloe (Delta-T Devices, UK): Commercial developments in soil water instrumentation