NASA Harvest, NASA’s Food Security and Agriculture Program, is a global consortium with contributions from people of many different backgrounds, specialties, and interests. What unites us all is a dedication to bolstering food security around the world through Earth observation applications, and a shared passion for technology that improves lives. We are proud of the work that we do and the people who produce it. This feature introduces the people of NASA Harvest, showcasing the members of our organization and how their efforts support a food-secure future.
Christina Justice is a Senior Faculty Specialist at the University of Maryland and the Food Security and Early Warning Co-Lead for NASA Harvest and Lead of the GEOGLAM Crop Monitor for Early Warning (CM4EW) Initiative. Through the CM4EW Christina brings together the main global agriculture and food security monitoring agencies including UN FAO, UN WFP, USAID FEWSNET, EC JRC, Asia Rice along with regional and national organizations on a monthly basis to discuss current crop conditions over the world’s most vulnerable regions and produce a consensus-based bulletin on current cropping conditions and forecast climatic concerns that may impact agricultural production. The goal of this work is to provide early warning of impending threats to crop production across countries at risk of food insecurity and strengthen agricultural policies and decision making through timely, transparent, reliable and actionable information.
Christina received her B.S. in Environmental Science and Policy with a focus on Global Environmental Change with a minor in Geographic Information Systems in 2014 from the University of Maryland. During this time, she interned at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center with the AERONET project and was a Research Assistant in the Environmental Science Institute at the University of Texas at Austin under a National Science Foundation grant. Christina then went on to earn her M.S. in Geographical Sciences at the University of Maryland in 2017 developing cropland masks for smallholder systems in Tanzania under a Gates funded project.
Christina’s research interests are in sustainable agriculture and bridging the gap between agricultural land use practices and remotely sensed information to better inform agriculture policies and support the livelihoods and food security of smallholder farmers. Christina loves the outdoors and being by the ocean as well as is an avid runner and gardener herself. When she gets the chance, she is free diving to explore the ocean depths on one breath or if land locked is foraging for edible plants out in nature or trying her hand at ceramics.
Could you please explain what exactly GEOGLAM and the GEOGLAM Crop Monitor is and how it came to be?
GEOGLAM is the Group on Earth Observations Global Agricultural Monitoring Initiative and was adopted by the G20 in 2011 under the Action Plan on Food Price Volatility in Agriculture in response to the big global food price crises in 2008 and 2010. These food prices shocks caused widespread price spikes in markets around the world due to multiple factors including high uncertainty on drought impacts in some of the major export countries. These price hikes impacted basic food items and even led to food riots in parts of the world and exacerbated food insecurity for the most vulnerable populations where households were no longer able to afford and purchase necessary household items.
GEOGLAM was developed in response to these market shocks, to strengthen the international community’s capacity to produce and disseminate timely, accurate and reliable information on agricultural production to ultimately support market transparency and avoid market shocks that could impact food security. Within this framework the University of Maryland in partnership with GEOGLAM developed the Crop Monitor for AMIS (CM4AMIS) in 2013. The goal of the CM4AMIS was to provide timely and transparent monthly crop condition assessments for the main production and export countries that would reflect an international consensus thereby reducing uncertainty around global food supplies and calming the markets and avoiding unexpected food price shocks and synthesizes these efforts in a monthly bulletin.
Building on the success of the CM4AMIS, in 2016 GEOGLAM partnered with some of the major global food security and agricultural monitoring organizations including USAID FEWSNET, FAO, WFP, EC JRC, Asia Rice, amoung others to launch a Crop Monitor for countries at risk of food insecurity, the Crop Monitor for Early Warning (CM4EW). CM4EW was created in response to the even greater need for similar crop condition information in countries at risk of famine and where shocks to crop production like droughts, floods, and pest infestations are more common and there are greater information gaps related to crop impacts and higher uncertainty. CM4EW brings together the early warning community on a monthly basis to share information across the community and build a consensus around current crop conditions, reducing uncertainty in global crop condition assessments to support agricultural and humanitarian decision making. These efforts are synthesized in the CM4EW report published on the first Thursday of every month in coordination with the CM4AMIS. Through this type of early warning of drought and potential crop failure and enhanced reliability of crop assessments with cross agency consensus under CM4EW, end users have the ability to better predict the scale and extent of these events earlier in the season and trigger appropriate response.
How did you initially get involved with the CM4EW? What motivated you to start this kind of work?
I got started with CM4EW initially through my Masters at UMD. During my Masters, I worked on a Gates funded project to support the development of remote sensing based agricultural monitoring systems with the Ministry of Agriculture in Tanzania. Under this project we were working on developing field data collection techniques to assess crop condition at the field level and locate areas impacted from drought, floods, pest and disease to inform national monitoring and reporting. This work brought me to understand the real potential of remote sensing to support agricultural monitoring at scale and especially in areas where resources are limited and multiple field assessments throughout the season are not feasible.
Satellite based Earth observation indicators like NDVI, Soil Moisture, Precip, and Temperature can be monitored throughout the cropping season and provide early warning of extreme weather events like droughts and floods and can monitor the impact of these events as they develop, allowing governments and humanitarian organizations time to mitigate damage from these shocks and trigger safety nets to offset agricultural losses. Following my Masters, in 2016 the CM4EW had just launched and I took over leading this initiative and coordinating the monthly assessments and bulletin publication. From this initial starting point in 2016 we started to build out the CM4EW community bringing in new partners and expanding the report content and regional coverage to what exists today.
My graduate work directly applied to CM4EW activities by providing me a strong understanding of crop condition assessments from the field level and how this correlated to satellite based crop assessments. Under CM4EW I work with partners from the main agricultural monitoring organizations on a monthly basis to build a consensus on crop conditions across different regions of the world and work through crop condition discrepancies between agencies on a monthly telecon held with all the partners. CM4EW highlights the critical need for cross agency initiatives and information sharing to fill gaps related to crop assessments and provide a stronger source for early warning that can better support early action by humanitarian organizations.
How does your previous experience both with your Masters and earlier translate into your current role?
I have always been interested in agriculture and growing my own food even from a young age thanks to my parents always keeping a garden in our backyard. I love to hike and explore in nature and continue to garden and grow my own food to this day. Growing up with gardening as part of my life, I became more interested in agriculture and environmental sciences and the damage heavily industrial agricultural practices can have on our environment. Geography and remote sensing in particular were familiar and interesting to me from an early age as my father is a researcher in this field. When I started learning more formally about Remote Sensing and GIS during my Undergraduate in Environmental Science the idea of being able to monitor crops, forests, land dynamics, and the environmental impacts we were learning about in class from space fascinated me and made something that was a local concern a globally relevant issue that I wanted to dive into.
Through my field work during my Masters in Tanzania I listened to the stories of smallholder and subsistence farmers that were living at the edge of being able to produce enough to put food on the table and sell to the market. For these farmers, crop success or failure is critical to their livelihood and to their survival. Through this experience I became more interested in how satellite data and this ability to monitor impacts throughout the season combined with weather forecasts could support early warning of impending threats to production like dry spells, drought, and floods. Along with this, I wanted to delve into how early warning can support these same farmers in planning efforts before disaster hits, letting them know when to plant and what to plant - moving to more drought resistant crops during a forecasted dry year.
Not only can early warning efforts support farmers but they can also inform the decision makers and national governments in their planning operations in advance of the impacts being felt and following a major weather shock or disaster to support relief operations. It has been incredibly rewarding to work with CM4EW and see the impact of this work. I’m lucky to work with such an amazing group of experts across the different agencies and to continue to learn from them and with them as the CM4EW community and initiative continues to grow in size and scope.
With such a geographically-diverse report, you must have a number of reporting partners. Can you tell us how the CM4EW reporting network came to be and how this community has grown to what it is now?
When we started CM4EW, the information that was being provided from our partner organizations was scarce and we only had a few agencies regularly participating covering a handful of regions including Southeast Asia, East West and Southern Africa and Central America. From this starting place we grew CM4EW bringing in new partners from the international community and building out the strong Early Warning community that exists today. We now cover seven regions including Southeast Asia, Central and South Asia, Middle East and North Africa, East Africa, West Africa, Southern Africa and Central America and the Caribbean with multiple reporting agencies across all regions building a stronger consensus.
Through this cross-agency collaboration and information sharing we have been able to better target areas of high uncertainty and where more information is needed from national agencies and ground reports to support assessments. At the same time, we have been able to build more robust information networks partnering with national ministries and regional agencies to provide more detailed and validated information to support decision makers in their planning and food mobilization efforts.
Recognizing the critical role of climate forecasts in early warning, since 2018 we have added a new component of CM4EW in partnership with UCSB Climate Hazards Center to cover regional forecasts, seasonal forecast alerts and global climate outlooks in our monthly bulletins. These forecasts provide critical insights into weather events that may impact crop outcomes such as precipitation and temperature anomalies as well as the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO). By combining consensus crop assessments with weather forecasts, we are able to provide an even earlier warning of impending threats to production and projections of potential crop outcomes. In turn, the heightened concerns for poor production and crop failure can help trigger food aid and import measures to combat food insecurity.
What is the impact of the CM4EW?
Since its inception in 2016, CM4EW has become a critical instrument for early warning. By providing a multi-agency consensus on current crop condition and status, CM4EW is able to reduce speculation about crop production and food availability and provide early warnings of potential production shortfalls which are even more critical for regions at high risk of food insecurity. The earlier that farmers, policymakers, humanitarian organizations, and other decision-makers are aware of a potential crop shortfall or failure, the more time and resources can be made available to mitigate a pending food shortage. Early warning as provided by CM4EW can help trigger earlier action by national governments and humanitarian communities as well as inform regional planning and food mobilization efforts. We have users across different sectors that look to Crop Monitor reports as a reliable and trusted source of information on global agricultural conditions and production.
With the ever-present and growing threat of climate change further destabilizing global food security, can you please elaborate on why CM4EW is a helpful tool to help combat food insecurity in these countries?
Climate change and the increasing frequency and severity of weather extremes are among the key factors contributing to the rise in global food insecurity and is amoung the leading causes of severe food crises. Tracking global crop conditions and impacts through the CM4EW initiative has brought this front and center. We are seeing impacts from natural disasters and weather extremes becoming increasingly common. Multiple year droughts and devastating flooding have become the new normal in many regions of the world, deteriorating food security for the most vulnerable populations and impacting livelihoods for farming communities. Across many CM4EW countries smallholder farmers are dominant and provide a critical source of food for local markets. Many of these farmers are rainfed agriculturalists and rely on seasonal rains to support their crops making them extremely vulnerable to changes in seasonal rainfall. Weather shocks and extremes, delays in the rainfall onset and dry spells in the middle of the season can all have severe negative impacts on crop production and ultimately food security. CM4EW tracks the impacts of climatic concerns and weather extremes throughout the growing season and provides consensus based and timely information to decision makers to help inform their response to these climatic shocks. The seasonal forecast alerts that we provide also support governments to prepare and plan in advance of a forecasted dry season and make sure that they are helping farmers to take mitigating actions like planting more drought tolerant crops and good agronomic agriculture practices.
Apart from CM4EW what other projects are you currently working on that excite you?
There is a lot of work underway within NASA Harvest and some new projects that are really exciting to be working on in the field of early warning. In addition to leading CM4EW I am also working on a research project led by FEWSNET in partnership with NASA Harvest, UCSB CHC, NASA Goddard, NOAA, and USGS to pilot the development of experimental end of season crop condition maps at an extended scale.
There is new research showing the potential for forecasting ENSO events 12 months or more in advance of a climate event being realized. ENSO events bring a lot of predictability to long lead forecasts and this predictability can allow us to generate climate scenarios for a given season and translate these into most likely scenarios of crop conditions.
While this is still in the pilot stage there is a really exciting potential of being able to provide warnings of poor or failed production well in advance of the start of the season and potentially synchronous droughts in different regions of the world to help inform humanitarian planning efforts and significantly extend out the timeline of what we can consider as early warning.
I am also currently leading a project in partnership with FAO GIEWS to collect ground truth validation labels of crop type with the FAO country staff to improve the ML models for cropland and crop type mapping from the NASA Harvest team and ultimately produce high resolution cropland and crop type maps to support national monitoring systems. Improved cropland and crop type maps can help strengthen the capacity of national governments to conduct damage and loss evaluations, risk analysis mapping, and better monitor agricultural conditions throughout the season.