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 hardworking people of NASA Harvest, showcasing the brilliant members of our organization and how their efforts support a food-secure future.
Kara Mobley is a Faculty Specialist with the University of Maryland's Department of Geographical Sciences for the NASA Harvest program. Her position involves supporting the Group on Earth Observations Global Agricultural Monitoring (GEOGLAM) initiatives, including contributing to both the Crop Monitor for AMIS (CM4AMIS) and Crop Monitor for Early Warning (CM4EW) monthly reports. The Crop Monitor reports provide current crop conditions at the sub-national scale for both major exporting countries as well as countries at risk of food insecurity using consensus-based information from partner agencies, earth observation data, and ground reports. Additionally, Kara develops Conflict Reports for countries experiencing severe internal insecurity to demonstrate the impact that ongoing conflict has on agricultural production and food security. She also contributes to mid-month Special Reports in response to developing situations or rapidly changing conditions that are likely to impact crop development.
Kara has a diverse background in agricultural economics, agricultural policy, program management, and geospatial information sciences. Her professional interests involve food security, agricultural sustainability, and leveraging Remote Sensing and GIS to ensure global food needs are sustainably met.
Can you expand a bit on your background in agricultural economics and policy? What previous work have you done in these fields?
My interest in the agricultural sector initially stems from a paper I wrote for a high school Human Geography course on sustainable agricultural practices and policies. This early introduction to the field along with some related coursework prompted me to major in Agricultural and Resource Economics for my undergraduate degree. Through this major, I took courses in fundamental economic concepts, applied agricultural, environmental, and land use economics, agricultural policy, and business principles. These courses helped inform me of the complexities of agricultural production and economics which instilled a passion for sustainable agricultural practices and food security.
As a student, I secured an internship with the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service where I analyzed economic policies in relation to existing food safety laws. After graduation, I worked with a government contracting agency where I provided logistics and management support for government contracts and program implementation.
How does this previous experience translate into your current role?
Each one of my previous roles and experiences have helped me develop skills that I use on a daily basis in my current position. As an undergraduate student, I developed a foundational understanding of the agricultural sector and markets. I also enhanced my research and writing skills, which I use daily in my current position to synthesize information from a variety of sources and translate it into comprehensive and concise reports.
As an intern with the USDA, I learned how to apply my knowledge of agriculture and economics to analyze real-world policies, a skill that I apply to critically interpret ground reports when writing the Crop Monitors.
As a Program Coordinator, I learned how to efficiently organize data, communicate with partner organizations, and manage detail-oriented projects. All of these skills have proven instrumental in my current role as each report I write requires me to gather information from partner organizations, organize information from a variety of sources, and decipher what details are relevant for the reports.
Additionally, I am currently in the process of obtaining a master’s degree in Geospatial Information Sciences. As a graduate student, I’m learning how to use geospatial technology and methods to manipulate and analyze satellite data. Currently, I use this knowledge to interpret data and create graphics and maps to include in the reports I develop.
What is your current role with NASA Harvest and what are some of your responsibilities?
For two weeks of every month, I work on the Crop Monitor reports. A typical report involves researching ground reports, collecting and organizing information from partners, identifying and helping to resolve discrepancies, drafting text, attending and leading monthly telecons, verifying graphics, and putting together the full report with text, graphics, and forecast information.
For the remainder of the month, I am usually developing the Conflict Reports, which analyze how conflict affects agricultural production and food security in affected countries. I also contribute to the Special Reports, which provide details on developing climatic situations that are likely to impact crop conditions. Additionally, I help promote Crop Monitor and Harvest initiatives by contributing to blog posts and news articles. When needed, I assist other Harvest members with their research, such as labelling cropland from satellite images.
What projects are you currently working on?
I am currently preparing for the next round of Crop Monitor reporting, which will be published on September 2nd. These reports deliver consensus information regarding how global food crops are progressing in their growth cycle and the primary climatic drivers behind current crop conditions.
To create these reports, information from ground reports, partner organizations, and earth observation data is gathered and synthesized to create a comprehensive overview of current crop conditions.
Additionally, I am working to finalize the next Conflict Report, which will explore how conflict in Yemen has impacted domestic agricultural production and food security.
What kind of impact do the Crop Monitors have as a reporting mechanism?
The AMIS and Early Warning Crop Monitors cover crop conditions in 130 countries which represent 93% of global agricultural lands. Together, they help support market transparency and provide early warning of potential production shortfalls. Last year, our reports were cited by more than three dozen global reporting agencies. It’s gratifying to see our work being used to bring awareness to situations that are likely to impact food production from the local to global scale.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced with the above project?
For the Conflict Reports, it is sometimes difficult to sort through disparate sources and find accurate and current information as detailed reporting can be limited in countries plagued by insecurity. Luckily, we’ve developed great relationships with partners who are able to verify the information and provide their own expertise.
On an individual level, I recently took over temporary leadership of the Crop Monitor for AMIS reports. This new role has been thoroughly rewarding, and I am thrilled to get the opportunity to lead the production of such an important report. While entering this role did come with a bit of a learning curve, the support and mentorship of other Harvest members made the transition seamless.
Your work on CM4EW is really instrumental in identifying countries at risk of food insecurity and bringing attention to these struggles. How does it feel helping develop these reports knowing the positive impact they can bring to struggling countries?
A great aspect of reporting on conditions in other countries is that it helps to expand my personal understanding of global issues, but with awareness also comes concern. While I can help bring attention to climatic and political situations that may impact a country’s production through the reports we develop, I am increasingly apprehensive about the expanding impacts of climate change, including more frequent droughts, floods, storms, forest fires, and conflict that stems from diminishing resources. However, it’s fulfilling to know that my work can help bring awareness to these issues and provide early warning to potential production shortfalls or food security crises.