Jared Blumenfeld, California’s Secretary for Environmental Protection (CalEPA) and host of the environmentally-focused podcast series Podship Earth, interviewed NASA Harvest Director, Dr. Inbal Becker-Reshef, to get her take on the use of remote sensing and satellite data for agricultural decision-making and food security. In Episode 73: Crop Circle, Blumenfeld and Becker-Reshef deep-dive into the impacts that real-time crop data have on the ability of countries to proactively address food shortages and how to provide key information for supporting food security and market decisions.
“Food security is probably one of the biggest challenges we face in this century, today there are over 820 million people food-insecure around the world. That number is on the rise again,” explains Becker-Reshef. She goes on to describe some of the biggest drivers of food shortages, including increasing populations and a growing middle class, conflict, and extreme weather events. Farmers are ultimately left trying to produce a larger quantity of more resilient crops on the same amount of land.
In order to keep up with increasing demand, it is estimated that global food supply must increase 50% by the year 2050. Blumenfeld rightfully questions how, in the next 30 years, we will be able to dramatically increase the food supply without more land and in increasingly adverse growing conditions. Becker-Reshef explains that one of the main trends is intensification through double-cropping. She points to Brazil as an example, where an increase to two large maize seasons per year has accomplished a significant increase in food production. Farmers are also using seed technology and looking at drought-resistant plant varieties that can withstand more frequent extreme weather events. However, she cautions that these approaches will only get us part of the way there.
This ties into Becker-Reshef and her team’s main area of focus on in-season crop monitoring and production forecasting, where she places an emphasis on the global and interconnected nature of agriculture. As such, it is important to have global, timely, and transparent information on global crop output. Such information is critical for informing key decisions across the agricultural sector including on trade, government actions and policies, humanitarian organizations and their work on anticipating food shortages and as such can have a major impact on markets and food prices.
As an example Becker-Reshef recalls a major incident in 1971-2 which turned out to be a key turning point for agricultural monitoring. At that point there was no global reporting systems in place and the Soviet Union, a large wheat producer, experienced a severe drought that led to a significant shortage in wheat, which the U.S. was unaware of. In turn the US sold wheat to the Soviet Union at essentially subsidized prices. As a result of the unanticipated shortage, both US domestic grain prices and international market prices rose sharply leading to a food price crisis. This historical event and lack of a global view of agricultural output highlighted the need for a global and transparent crop monitoring system that would mutually benefit all involved in the agricultural sector.
Nowadays several satellite driven global monitoring systems are in operation. The major improvements in satellite technologies including resolution, revisit frequency, data quality, and availability alongside advances in compute and big data analysis are revolutionizing our capabilities for crop monitoring from field to global scales leading to improved decision making and delivering on the long held promise for satellite based agricultural monitoring. Satellite data allows us to monitor where and what crops are being grown, to track their development throughout the growing season, monitor the impact of extreme weather events and track changes such as expansion through time.
The global nature of the agricultural industry cannot be understated and Becker-Reshef notes that satellite data have a major role to play in providing timely transparent information to inform actors across the agricultural sector. As such, collaborative international programs like NASA Harvest and the G20 GEOGLAM initiative are working to enhance the use and uptake of satellite data in decision making related to food security and agriculture from farm to global scales.
However, Becker-Reshef emphasizes that in order to build trust and encourage the use of satellite-based monitoring tools, we need to be careful about not over-promising satellite capabilities and to ensure close collaboration with the stakeholders. She states that satellites are one tool providing pieces of information to a larger picture in terms of monitoring global crop production. The ultimate goal of Harvest and its partners is to empower decisions that support food security, stable markets, economic progress and sustainable, resilient crop production through advancing the awareness and operational update of earth observations and doing so in close partnership with stakeholders across the agricultural sector.
Listen to the podcast for Dr. Becker-Reshef’s full perspective!