Crop research

Rothamsted Research has set up an information-sharing ‘dating site’ to bring together researchers in different countries that are working on long-term agricultural experiments.

So far, scientists running 65 different farm-based studies have signed up to the service, and the only stipulation for membership is that your project must have been running for at least a decade.

The 65 studies span the globe, with about 20 in the Americas, a dozen or so in Africa, more than 10 in Europe and several others across both Asia and Australasia.

“This certainly isn’t for those looking for ‘no-strings attached’. You’ve got to be in it for the long haul,” said Dr Jon Storkey is head of the network and helps run a 176-year-old experiment, the oldest on the site. “This is more about ploughing the field than playing it.”

Ultimately, the idea behind the website is to help tackle climate change and other environmental or socio-economic impacts of farming and food production. These include greenhouse gas emissions, water usage, pollution, and direct and indirect land use changes, such as deforestation.

The Global Long-Term Agricultural Experiment Network (GLTEN) brings together long-running experiments that together span nearly two centuries and six continents, as well as representing numerous climates, environments, crop types, farming practices and land-management regimes.

The researchers responsible for the experiments have made their information openly available on the website to help other scientists discover their research and foster further collaborative work.

Initially funded by the Thirty Percy Foundation, GLTEN represents a potential treasure trove of information – over 1,750 years’ worth of data in total – that will hopefully help researchers and policymakers design “the farms of the future”.

“The hope is that lessons learnt in one country might improve practices elsewhere, resulting in natural resources being used more efficiently, and in a way that produces a food supply which delivers a nutritionally balanced diet,” said Dr Storkey.

“We also hope this initiative will help us uncover ‘hidden’ long-term experiments that we didn’t know about, enabling us to mine and analyse their datasets and insights.

“This will allow new discoveries to be made, leading to a truer account of the costs and benefits of our different dietary choices.”

He added that finding ways of farming sustainably requires an understanding of how growing crops impacts the environment over long time scales.

“The natural processes that determine the sustainability of food production systems often have complex interactions and so experimental results from a single site over a short-time scale are difficult to interpret.

“With large and high-quality datasets, these long-term agricultural experiments can address these challenges.

“However, many of these datasets were fragmented, under-utilised or have yet not been published. Our first step has been to bring information on the experiments together in one place and provide it in a consistent, accessible format.”

A good example of the value of long-term experiments is our understanding of the effects of man-made fertiliser use – a practice that began in Europe during the Victorian era. Fertiliser experiments that started in the UK in the 1800s have helped chart the long-term impacts of this switch, not just on crop yields, but also on soils, water, wildlife, human health and climate.