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Newton Prize: Crop monitoring for global food security wins Chair’s Award

The UK-China team behind the crop monitoring for global food security project received the Newton Prize Chair’s Award 2019 at the Newton Prize London event on Wednesday 12 February 2020.   The Newton Prize is awarded for the best research or innovation that promotes the economic development and social welfare of Newton partner countries and is worth up to £459,000.

Researchers led by Professor Phil Lewis from University College London and collaborating institutes  – National Centre for Earth Observation, the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, the China Agricultural University and Assimila Ltd – have used advanced data assimilation techniques to vastly improve the accuracy and resolution of crop monitoring and crop yield estimates over the North China Plain (NCP).  Together, this UK-China team is now testing the new techniques in other countries, including Ghana and the UK.

Across the world, many common pressures are threatening the sustainability of future food production. These include population growth, soil erosion, drought, flooding, pesticide overuse, and groundwater depletion. Many such problems will be exacerbated by climate change. Accurate and timely monitoring of crop health and agricultural productivity support global food security, enabling better planning and informed decision-making at all levels, and positively impacting the livelihoods of low-income rural regions.

The project is among the first to make use of the new capabilities for high temporal frequency imaging from space at 10s of m scale, enabled by the operational EU/ESA Copernicus Sentinel satellites, supplemented by and US and Chinese assets. The information produced has fed directly into agricultural production planning for winter wheat in the North China Plain at government and regional levels, and the team is working to provide it more widely to workers and farmers. Accurate and timely data on how crops are developing and responding to different stresses will help farmers to implement more suitable land and crop management practices and increase harvests.

The big difference for agricultural monitoring has been provided by the combination of the more regular and appropriate satellite imagery, the radiative transfer models and machine learning techniques that allow rapid interpretation of the data, and further models of crop development and yield that link the data to agronomy. Using advanced data assimilation techniques, the UK-China team combine these sources of evidence to improve accuracy of crop monitoring by ten percent and produce crop yield estimates at better-than-the-field scales, more suited to how farming works around the world.


Crop Development, courtesy Phil Lewis
UK Science Minister Chris Skidmore, Prof Philip Lewis and Quingling Wu
Minister Embassy of China in UK Chen Wen
Group photo UK Science Minister Chris Skidmore with the prize winning team and Chinese Embassy Minister Chen Wen

Guoqiang Zhao, Chief Engineer, Henan Provincial Meteorological Bureau, said: “This project provides just what we need – high resolution yield, one month prior to harvest. At the same time, it can help to explain how different stress factors impact the final grain yield. It is making a big progress to the way we run operational crop yield forecasting.”

Prof Philip Lewis University College London said: “Winning the Newton Prize Chair’s Award will allow us to work with colleagues in Ghana to build and enhance their capacity for food-crop monitoring using these methods. Our initial focus will be on maize yield and acreage in the northern regions of Ghana, where food-crop farming is vital to low-income households and particularly impacts women.”

Dr Hugh Mortimer, a research scientist at Science and Technology Facilities Council’s RAL Space, and leads this Newton agritech programme on behalf of STFC, said “This project is great example of how space based data and technology can be used to make a real impact to the lives of people over the world. Space may seem far away but this shows how Earth Observation satellites developed and built by scientists in the UK can play a major role in tackle some of the world’s greatest challenges. The projects that STFC has funded are helping to create sustainable solutions to the global food crisis and to protect the environment. This joint UK-China initiative will help farmers, food producers and national bodies to manage crops production more effectively and to help plan food production accurately. This doesn’t just benefit those in the UK and China but it will go on to help the global community.”

Read more about the project here

Delivery partners: Science and Technology Facilities Council, part of UK Research and Innovation and National Natural Science Foundation of China

Read more about the Newton Fund and the full case study here