Satellites and Food Security
Nearly 800 million people in the world do not have enough food to eat. It is no secret that more efficient farming and agricultural practices can help yield more crops to feed more people as well as bring in more income to poor farmers. In conjunction with traditional ground-based data collection of farmland, satellite imaging and sensing can help farmers monitor their crops and land condition in real time. Satellite-based technology can map cropland area and crop type, estimate area planted, estimate product yield and even detect early signs of droughts and floods. With this kind of technology, farmers may be better equipped to make informed choices about their land to protect their products. With more informed farmers, better use of resources and ultimately more crops, satellites may be an important part of ensuring global food security.

A New Wave of Tech

Precision farming is the use of technologies to inform farmers about their products. This method is not new, however, the systems in place are changing. Traditional, ground-based tests, such as soil sampling, have long been used to test the arity, salinity, and other conditions of land. These tests help instruct farmers about the optimal mix of fertilizer, pesticide and water that should be used to yield the most crops. While these tests are useful, they are expensive, time-consuming and can only provide data for a small area of land.

Satellites may provide a comprehensive solution. Equipped with imaging and sensing technology, satellites may analyze entire fields at more regular intervals for a more timely and lower-cost option. With land-use mapping and monitoring technologies, satellites cater to a variety of farmers’ needs. Farmers are using satellite technology to:

  • Analyze soil fertility.
  • Map irrigated land.
  • Monitor crop growth.
  • Produce crop yield forecasts.
  • Track crop development.
  • Measure soil moisture content.
  • Test soil chemical composition.

Depending on the program and type of imaging, the costs of satellite data may differ. The Sentinel-2, a land-monitoring system of two satellites that the European Space Agency (ESA) controls, provides vegetation imagery and moisture maps to farmers for $0.20 per acre per two months of service.

Satellites: Prediction, Protection and Prevention

In places like sub-Saharan Africa where agriculture accounts for 64 percent of all employment, satellite-based technology is vital to the survival of farmers. Ninety-five percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s farmable land lacks irrigation systems, thus making the farmland more susceptible to drastic land conditions like droughts and floods. With satellite technology and remote sensing, farmers can shift their focus from reacting to disasters after they occur to planning response before the disasters cause damage. Because low soil moisture content is an indicator of drought, satellites can measure the soil’s moisture content using microwave radiation and send an early warning to farmers in the affected area.

With these early response mechanisms, insured farmers can apply early to their insurers and receive money. Programs like the Ethiopian Productive Safety Net Program provides cash-transfers to poor households using this satellite-based technology.

People have used satellite drought imaging combined with data on local market supply and demand to bring the right amount of food aid to countries in need. Molly Brown, a researcher for NASA, uses satellite images of cropland in Niger, where farmers not only grow food for markets but also eat the crops, to estimate rising market costs. During droughts, these farmers cannot grow enough food to feed themselves and sell locally, thus demand and market prices increase. Since many rural families in Niger live on only around $400 a year, drastic price increases may mean that they cannot get enough to eat.

The goal of Brown’s research is to predict rising market prices before they occur based on satellite images of farmland. It is also to bring in enough food aid when people need it and to stop food aid when it is not necessary. Brown hopes satellites will be an important step toward ensuring food security.

Already at Work

Many organizations, large and small, have already begun harnessing the power of satellite technology and its use in agriculture. NASA has rolled out several satellite-driven initiatives to help combat food security. The Famine Early Warning Systems (FEWS) Network, established in 2000, uses NASA’s Landsat satellite imaging and remote sensing to gather data, forecast weather trends and hazards and create maps for vegetation, rainfall and water use. In order to make satellite imaging and data more accessible to the communities that could best utilize them, NASA established a web-based visualization and monitoring system, for Africa and Central America, called SERVIR, in collaboration with USAID.

Working with more than 200 institutions and training around 1,800 regional support staffers, SERVIR provides previously inaccessible satellite data, imaging and forecasts to local governments and researchers. With this information, SERVIR hopes that developing nations will be able to respond better to natural disasters, improve their food security and manage water and other natural resources.

Even private companies like Planet Labs, are investing in satellite-based technology. Planet uses many smaller, relatively inexpensive satellites for its imaging force. The company has around 140 currently deployed, enough to capture an image of the entire Earth every day. It sells imaging and monitoring data to over 200 customers, many of whom are agricultural companies.

In 2015, at the U.N. Sustainable Development Summit, Planet Labs introduced its Open Regions initiative. By making $60 million worth of its satellite imagery for certain regions available to the global public and directly accessible online, Planet Lab’s imagery brings data vital to the health of crops directly to farmers. With the U.N. deadline to end global hunger and ensure global food security by 2030, it is important for governments and organizations to look for new, sustainable opportunities to increase productivity. By looking beyond conventional, ground-based agricultural solutions and turning to the skies, farmers may find that satellites may be an important part of ensuring global food security.

– Maya Watanabe
Photo: Wikipedia Commons