Results from long-running agricultural experiments are being made openly available to other scientists to support greater collaboration between projects.
The Global Long-Term Agricultural Experiment Network (GLTEN), based at Rothamsted Research, and funded by the Thirty Percy Foundation brings together long-running experiments that span nearly two centuries and six continents, as well as representing numerous climates, environments, crop types, farming practices and land-management regimes.
GLTEN represents a potential treasure trove of information – over 1750 years’ worth of data in total – that will help researchers and policymakers design “the farms of the future”.
Dr Jon Storkey is head of the GLTEN network and helps run an experiment, which at 176 years old, is the oldest to be featured on the site. He comments:
“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 that delivers a nutritionally balanced diet.
“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.”
Dr Storkey said 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.”
Impact of man-made fertiliser
A good example of the value of long-term experiments is our understanding 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 soils, water, wildlife, human-health and climate.
Dr Storkey said: “These long-term experiments are a really important global resource for designing farms of the future.”
The 65 sites 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. Many of the experiments have been running for many decades – the oldest is the UK’s Broadbalk Experiment at Rothamsted Research which is 176 years old, whilst a further four have also surpassed a century.
“As the network grows, it will be an important part of the exciting new science being developed at Rothamsted and partner institutions around the world to ensure a sustainable food supply and healthy environment for future generations,” added Dr Storkey.
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