Managing water scarcity in European and Chinese cropping systems

On the 15th of June the SHui and TUDi team of the Czech Technical University in Prague (CTU in Prague) participated in a “Open field day” –with a cooperating agri company, field day with demonstration of farming technologies, crops, methods. CTU was involved, presenting and discussing project topics, results, methods, with over 200 farmers.

European projects indeed support interdisciplinary research, but they also provide other benefits to the participating teams and individuals. Some of the greatest opportunities include the chance to travel, meetings with colleagues, or even getting hosted for an internship or sabbatical by partner institutions. I am one of those lucky ones who took such an opportunity and began a short-term visiting professorship at Instituto de Agricultura Sostenible (IAS), CSIC in Cordoba, Spain.

There are many potential reasons why one would feel motivated to leave a daily routine. In my case, the main driver was some frustration due to covid restrictions limiting travel, the lack of personal contacts with foreign project partners, and online meetings. With the support of my wife and children, who apparently also realized that things can be done remotely, we all departed to sunny Andalusia in January 2022.

At IAS I work with José Alfonso Gómez and Gema Guzmán on topics related to the use of magnetic tracers in soil erosion research and the numerical modelling of soil water availability for grapes. On local vineyards, farmers implement an ancient management technique called ‘aserpiados,’ which is a series of small depr

Author: Thomas Brunner, PhD Student at BOKU Vienna and BAW-IKT Petzenkirchen

Prior to starting my ongoing educational journey at BOKU Vienna, I realized that anthropogenic climate change and associated detrimental effects on the environment and our civilization are clearly the most urgent and important challenge of our time. I feel morally obliged to dedicate my life (or at least my working hours) to trying to repay our collective debt.

With the limited understanding of environmental problems I had back then, I figured that all of this could be solved by expanding the capacity of hydroelectric power generation, which is why I enrolled at BOKU for the Environmental Engineering program. Ultimately, I let go of this plan and turned my attention to soil and water conservation instead, specifically the reduction of cultivation-accelerated soil erosion. I felt that this problem, which is as old as agriculture itself, was potentially equally dangerous for human existence as we know it, albeit slightly less urgent. Since soil erosion tends to happen in a clandestine way, going unnoticed for a long time, it can be even more ruinous in the end. Finding that this phenomenon had a smaller political lobby than other (less pressing) environmental problems, I decided to become part of this lobby for soil and water conservation myself.

Figure 1: Erosion plot trial in maize with different treatments (left to right): conventional tillage, cultivator & mulching, tillage & intercropped wheat – ca. 3 weeks after seeding

I joined the SHui project at the end of 2019 and have been mostly occupied with using an erosion model (CASE2) to examine the effects of different best management practices (BMPs) , i.e. their potential to decrease soil loss and increase the water volume available for crop growth. This means parameterizing input data for different sites and BMPs, as well as calibrating and validating the model outputs with measured data. While the effect of these BMPs on an individual field are often well understood and easily quantified, examining these effects on larger (catchment) scales requires developing appropriate scenarios and comparing model outputs, as direct measurements are usually very difficult.

Sharing data and ideas within the project provides interesting insights and viewpoints from completely different agricultural systems. For example, while I understand “standard” rainfed cereal and row crop cultivation in Central Europe, I know little about management of irrigated tree crops in the Mediterranean. Of course, there cannot be a single BMP or any collection of them, that act in a “one fits all” fashion to solve all possible management issues. However, synergies in BMPs should be sought such as between soil and water conservation, especially since most of the facts have been known for many years but need some fine-adjustment and implementation.

Figure 2: Soil cover on the plots shown in Figure 1 (same order from left to right); bottom row: classified into living plant, dead plant matter, rocks and bare soil

Apart from that, I assist with research at BAW-IKT Petzenkirchen, which aims to reduce both soil loss and surface runoff at catchment scales. For example, Figure 3 shows fields identified as hot spots for soil erosion within a small catchment. I find it a unique place at the interface between research and process understanding, policy (partly) based in this research, agricultural extension services, individual farmers, landscapes and water bodies themselves. There I also maintain a small erosion plot trial with maize to investigate the effects of mulching and intercropping with wheat. Figure 1 shows the different treatments shortly after sowing. The actual difference in soil cover between these treatments, which is a controlling factor of both splash and runoff erosion and the main parameter we want to increase, can be quantified as shown in Figure 2.This field work nicely complements the many hours I spend in front of a computer.

After finishing my PhD some day, I would not mind to simply continue working in this constellation, as I do not think that the problem of bringing more of the known BMPs into practice will be “solved” any time in the near future, but will instead require constant efforts from the science/policy direction. I am not so much interested in the pure science but very much target-oriented and want to see things implemented as well.

Figure 3: Field-based erosion hot spot (dark red) identification with CASE2 erosion model on small catchment scale

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


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.


Slides are available here.

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

SHui’s Innovation Event occurred in hybrid format on 26 April in Murcia, immediately prior to our final General Assembly. Our aim was to demonstrate results that could see direct commercial, or freeware, application in industry, ranging from the implementation of best management practices on farm to more holistic determination of crop carbon balance suitable for carbon footprinting methodologies. The event attracted an in-person audience of 30 from within the consortium and local businesses, with a similar number of people registering to attend online.

Following a welcome from project leader José Gómez (CSIC-IAS, Cordoba) and local host Juan José Alarcon (CSIC-CEBAS, Murcia), Beatriz Torralba of the China-Spain Network Alliance provided a brief online history of joint China-Spain funding at a business-to-business level, before focusing on current opportunities that are typically available across a range of sectors ranging from clean energy to medicine. Agricultural enterprises can benefit from this type of funding to enhance the sustainability of their practices by implementing new technologies. Reflecting the importance of the Murcia region as one of Spain’s fruit and vegetable bowls, Wei Sun of Murcia-based company Profinanza gave a case study of regional government co-operation between Murcia and Shandong Province in China, with international business opportunities facilitated by similar challenges such as water scarcity.

These presentations set the stage for more technically focused presentations from the SHui consortium, with tools at various stages of implementation. These included a new model to optimise irrigation scheduling in tree crops, the prediction of vine water status at field level and a new model to allow discrete crop management zones at field or farm scales. Such developments in irrigation scheduling can enhance the efficiency with which irrigation water is used by the crop.

Further issues of water management on farm were the control of water-based gully erosion using check dams, with a cost-benefit analysis introduced to assist farmers in making choices on how to construct these. A prototype Soil/Water app was also presented to enhance farmers ability to contribute ecosystem services to the landscape. Lastly, the benefits of the Green Carbon Tool to define crop carbon capture, based on many years of published data, to help farmers implement on-farm carbon footprinting, were introduced.

After the coffee break (participants were not deterred by the carbon costs of the coffee crop), a range of scientific-commercial collaborations occurring in the Murcia region were introduced. These included forecasting tools for climate-related stresses, the use of non-conventional water sources in irrigation, and a range of technologies to optimise water use in agriculture.

Download the programme here. 

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


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.