3 Ways Earth Observation is Tackling Food Security

Artist's rendition of a satellite - paulfleet/123RF Stock Photo

Artist’s rendition of a satellite – paulfleet/123RF Stock Photo

One of the key global challenges is food security. A number of reports issued last week, coinciding with World Food Day on the 16th October, demonstrated how Earth Observation (EO) could play a key part in tackling this.

Climate change is a key threat to food security. The implications were highlighted by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) report who described potential changes to suitable farmland for rainfed crops. Rainfed farming accounts for approximately 75 percent of global croplands, and it’s predicated that these locations will change in the coming years. Increased farmland will be available in North America, western Asia, eastern Asia and South America, whilst there will be a decline in Europe and the southern Great Plains of the US.

The work undertaken by USGS focussed on looking at the impact of temperature extremes and the associated changes in seasonality of soil moisture conditions. The author of the study, John Bradford said “Our results indicate the interaction of soil moisture and temperature extremes provides a powerful yet simple framework for understanding the conditions that define suitability for rainfed agriculture in drylands.” Soil moisture is a product that Pixalytics is currently working on, and its intriguing to see that this measurement could be used to monitor climate change.

Given that this issue may require farmers to change crops, work by India’s Union Ministry of Agriculture to use remote sensing data to identify areas best suited for growing different crops is interesting. The Coordinated Horticulture Assessment and Management using geoinformatics (CHAMAN) project has used data collected by satellites, including the Cartosat Series and RESOURCESAT-1, to map 185 districts in relation to the best conditions for growing bananas, mangos, citrus fruits, potatoes, onions, tomatoes and chilli peppers.

The results for eight states in the north east of the country will be presented in January, with the remainder a few months later, identifying the best crop for each district. Given that India is already the second largest producer of fruit and vegetables in the world, this is a fascinating strategic development to their agriculture industry.

The third report was the announcement of a project between the University of Queensland and the Chinese Academy of Sciences which hopes to improve the accuracy of crop yield predictions. EO data with an improved spatial, and temporal, resolution is being used alongside biophysical information to try to predict crop yield at a field scale in advance of the harvest. It is hoped that this project will produce an operational product through this holistic approach.

These are some examples of the way in which EO data is changing the way we look at agriculture, and potential help provide improved global food security in the future.

Supporting Uganda’s Farmers

Map of Uganda showing vegetation productivity. Underlying data is the MODIS 2014 NPP Product, MOD17 – Zhoa et al. (2005).

Uganda is a landlocked country of just over 240,000 square kilometres. Agriculture is a key element of the country’s economy and was responsible for 23% of gross domestic product in 2011 and almost half the country’s exports the following year. According to the Food & Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, 80% of the population relies on farming for its livelihood.

It has an equatorial climate, with regional variations, although recent recurrent dry spells have impacted on crop and livestock productivity. Pixalytics is delighted to be part of a consortium led by the RHEA Group, working with the Ugandan Ministry of Water and Environment and local NGOs to develop a Drought and Flood Mitigation Service (DFMS) to give practical information to help local communities respond to the effects of climate change.

Using computer models populated with satellite, meteorological, water resources and ground based data an innovative Environment Early Warning Platform will be developed to provide Ugandan farmers, via local NGO organisations, with forecasts throughout the growing seasons to enable them to take actions to maximise their crop yield.

Pixalytics, along with fellow consortium member, Environment Systems, are responsible for the Earth Observation data in the project. We’ll be looking at variety of optical and radar data to provide information about flood and drought conditions alongside crops and their growing conditions.

The project should benefit local communities by:

  • Improving the ability to forecast and mitigate droughts and floods on a local actionable scale.
  • Allowing NGOs to target resources saving time, money and lives.
  • Allowing farmers to improve their lives and better protect their livestock and crops.

Alongside ourselves, and RHEA Group, our consortium includes Environment Systems, Databasix, AA International, AgriTechTalk International, HR Wallingford, UK Met Office, Mercy Corps, and Oxford Policy Management. We will also work with international partners, including the Uganda Government Ministries, Kakira Sugar Company, and the NGO Green Dreams/iCOW. The first of a number of visits to Uganda took place last week, where we had the opportunity to make lots of local contacts and meet some of those whom we hope to benefit from this work.

This work is part of the UK Space Agency’s International Partnership Programme and ours is one of 21 projects chosen to provide solutions to local issues in counties across Africa, Asia, Central and South America.

This is a really exciting project to be involved with, and we’re looking forward to providing useful information to local farmers to allow them to take real and meaningful action to enhance the productivity, and protection, of their livestock and crops.

Why Satellite Agri-Tech Applications Will Grow In 2016?

Pixalytics-show preview image2016 is likely to be the year of agri-tech for remote sensing. Its potential has been highlighted for some time, but last year its call was loud and clear.

Agri-tech is the use of technology to improve agriculture production in terms of yield, efficiency and profitability. With a growing global population the need to become more effective and sustainable food producers is obvious, and technology can assist in terms of robotics, biotechnology, navigation, communication, etc. However, it’s opportunities offered by remote sensing that’s most exciting to us – of course, we’re probably biased!

Remote sensing has a wide range of applications for agriculture that range from mapping the underlying soil and crop plus the monitoring of invasive species through to defining seed density optimisation, irrigation management, harvest weather forecasting, yield estimation and long term land change / land use modelling. Essentially, we can offer support from planting to plating!

Despite this potential, uptake within the agricultural sector has been low. A survey of farmers by London Economics / the Satellite Applications Catapult last summer identified barriers that included cost, small-scale justification, reliable mobile / internet signal, lack of software to view data, lack of knowledge and the lack of proven benefits.

So with all of these issues, why are we saying agri-tech will grow in 2016? There are three good reasons:

Benefits Examples – Case studies with concrete examples of the usage of remote sensing are being published. For example, NASA and Applied Geosolutions, worked together using Landsat 8 and MODIS data to examine temperature, greenness, leaf moisture and surface water. This allowed them to develop rice crop management plans, particularly surrounding irrigation, improving both harvest forecasts and actual yields.

Copernicus Sentinel – I know we’ve said this before, but it’s worth saying again, this is a game changer. Both Sentinel-1 and Sentinel-2 data have signals that can be related to vegetation phenology, i.e. how plants change over time. As this data is free, it should allow companies to offer farmers products and services that are not cost prohibitive. Also, as the follow-on missions are launched then the frequency of data coverage will increase – particularly important for optical sensors where clouds can get in the way. Pixalytics has a Sentinel-2 vegetation product in test, which has already been applied to Landsat and very high resolution data, so it’s an area we’re looking to develop further – the image shows a Landsat-8 image processed over land using a Normalised Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) based algorithm.

Other Data – In June the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will be making over 8,000 data sets freely available that should cover information such as soil and crop types for fields all over the country. It will provide a wealth of information for farmers to understand what crops they should be growing in which fields to maximise their yields. In addition, the UK’s National Biodiversity Network offers air quality and river level readings.

Taken together these elements offer new opportunities for SME’s to get involved and develop products that will offer real benefits to farmers, both large and small, and will overcome the barriers to them utilising agri-tech. For the right company, with the right idea and right implementation then 2016 will be a high yield year!

If you are interesting in agri-tech and would like to talk to us about what can be done, and what we could offer then please get in touch.