Pioneering crop monitoring for food security wins Newton Prize

A new way to monitor crop production for global food security developed by scientists at UCL and the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, has won the Newton Prize 2019 Chair’s Award.

The UK-China team behind the pioneering research project were announced winners of the £459,000 prize at a special event in London on Wednesday 12 February.

Across the world, pressures such as population growth, soil erosion, drought, flooding, pesticide overuse, and groundwater depletion are threatening the sustainability of future food production. All of which will be exacerbated by climate change.

Researchers from UCL and the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences are addressing these challenges through advanced data assimilation techniques. This has already been used to vastly improve the accuracy and resolution of crop monitoring and crop yield estimates over the North China Plain.

The technique developed by scientists enables better planning and informed decision-making at all levels, to positively impact the livelihoods of low-income rural communities, and is now being tested in other countries, including Ghana and the UK.  

Project lead, Professor Philip Lewis (UCL Geography) said: "Winning the Newton Prize Chair’s Award will allow us to extend the application of our techniques to Ghana, where we will use earth observation and data assimilation techniques to help Ghana build its capacity for food-crop monitoring. We will focus on the monitoring of maize yield and acreage in the northern regions of Ghana, where food-crop farming is vital to low-income households and particularly women and children."

The project is among the first to make use of new capabilities from high temporal frequency imaging from space, enabled by the EU/ESA Copernicus Sentinel satellites and supplemented by US and Chinese assets.  

The information produced has fed directly into agricultural production planning in China at government and regional level, and the team is working to provide it more widely to workers and farmers.

The Newton Prize is a £1 million fund which supports world-class research partnerships as they take their projects to the next level. The Chair’s Award recognises exceptional impact and research which exhibit the best knowledge exchange and partnership development.  

Guoqiang Zhao, Chief Engineer at 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 difference to the way we run operational crop yield forecasting." 

Dr Hugh Mortimer, a research scientist at Science and Technology Facilities Council, 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.

"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."

Project partners include the National Centre for Earth Observation, the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, the China Agricultural University and others, including the UK SME Assimila.


From left to right: Dr Hugh Mortimer (STFC), Professor Philip Lewis (UCL Geography) and Dr Qingling Wu (UCL Geography).