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

Image of Newton Prize 2019 Chair's Prize winners at London event

  • UK researchers work in partnership with China on food security challenge
  • Part of £1 million Newton Prize for pioneering research projects
  • Chairs’ Award will extend benefits to smallholders in Ghana
  • Techniques being tested in the UK, with plans for elsewhere

A new and practical way to monitor crop yield for global food security has won the Newton Prize 2019 Chair’s Prize, up to up to £459,000. The UK-China team behind the project received the award at the Newton Prize London event on Wednesday 12 February.

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.

Researchers from University College London and collaborating institutes 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). Partners in the project include the National Centre for Earth Observation, the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, the China Agricultural University and others, including the UK SME Assimila. Together, this UK-China team is now testing the new techniques in other countries, including Ghana and the UK.

Video: Newton Prize 2019 winners explain how their projects address global challenges

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.

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."

Professor Philip Lewis, University College London said: "Winning the Newton Prize Chair’s Prize 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. STFC funded projects 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 crop production more effectively and plan food production accurately. This doesn’t just benefit those in the UK and China, but will go on to help the global community."

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

Read more about the project and the full Newton Prize shortlist in the Newton Prize 2019 booklet (PDF, 3Mb).

View images from the Newton Prize 2019 London event.


The Newton Prize is an annual £1 million fund developed to showcase how UK science and innovation partnerships are helping to solve global development challenges. The Newton Prize also incentivises researchers and innovators to participate in the Newton Fund as partners with the UK to work on the most important challenges facing developing countries such as poverty, gender equality and affordable and clean energy.

This year over 150 Newton funded projects, fellowships or other awards applied for the Newton Prize. Three prizes of up to £200,000 each were awarded to winning projects with the eligible countries: China, Indonesia and the Philippines. The Chair’s Award recognises exceptional impact and research, which exhibit the best knowledge exchange and partnership development.

The funding allows researchers to take their Newton projects to the next level, for example by translating their project from the lab into the field, through expansion and/or improvements to their original project, by bringing in more capacity or gaining higher profile; all increasing the likelihood of success.
The Newton Fund

The Newton Prize is part of the Newton Fund. The Newton Fund builds research and innovation partnerships with 17 partner countries to support their economic development and social welfare, and to develop their research and innovation capacity for long-term sustainable growth. It has a total UK Government investment of £735 million up until 2021, with matched resources from the partner countries.

Image: Chair’s Award winners, Hugh Mortimer, STFC, Professor Philip Lewis and Qingling Wu, University College London © Dan Santilis Photography, 2020