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.
Mahmoud Abouelmakarem is an Economic Research Assistant at NASA Harvest specializing in analyzing food security data and its economic impact on high risk regions. Mahmoud graduated with B.A. in Mathematics and a minor in Economics from Rutgers University, New Brunswick. He worked in public education for three years as a 6th Grade Mathematics teacher before joining graduate school. Mahmoud currently studies Applied Economics at the University of Maryland, College Park. Aside from working and studying, photography is one of his hobbies, and for the last few years, he has been exploring big cities and focusing on Black and White analogue street photography which has taught him a lot about patience and choosing the decisive moment to take a picture (example photo below). You can find more of his work on his Instagram page: @makarem303.
How did you join the Harvest Consortium?
Before joining NASA Harvest, I was a Finance Associate for the Department of Geographical Sciences at the University of Maryland (Through which NASA Harvest is based). I worked on submitting research proposals for different research projects including NASA Harvest. Through one of those proposals, I learned about NASA Harvest’s work in food security. Being a student in the MSc. in Applied Economics program, it was my goal to use what I learned in class for a good cause and enjoy it at the same time. I saw that NASA Harvest might be a good opportunity for me to apply my knowledge and skills. So, I decided to reach out to different people in Harvest who agreed to put me on some of their projects.
What is the focus of your research at Harvest?
I have two main focuses in my current research, both related to food security. First, I study the percent change in food prices over time and its effect on food security for people around the world. The second topic is much broader, which is studying the source of this food price change and whether the change is caused by agricultural reasons or if it is purely an economic change.
You are a part of Harvest’s supply chain initiative. Can you please explain a bit about why that focus is important and what kind of impact this research can have for commodity markets, food security, and food availability?
The supply chain project is more relevant today than ever. We are facing multiple issues today that risk the availability of the food on our tables. For years, scientists have been warning people about climate change, and now we can see the impact of climate change on different crops. This uncertainty in climate conditions can cause scarcity in different essential food resources. Moreover, the war in Ukraine raises the question “Where are wheat importing countries getting their next shipment from?” This issue is particularly pressing for me as I come from one of the top wheat importing countries, Egypt, and I have already seen some prices go up significantly over the last few months.
The impact of the supply chain project can be huge if it gets the right recognition. Our tool gives information about food security, crop conditions, trade, commodity prices, and climate change which can be used by fellow researchers, central banks, policy makers, and government officials to make informed decisions based on accurate and constantly updated data.
You are currently working on expanding the capabilities of the Harvest Portal, NASA Harvest’s online dashboard that visualizes a wide variety of earth observation, agro-meteorological, and trade data. How is your work expanding the scope of the dashboard?
My most recent project within the Harvest Portal was building a tool which graphs the price percent change over time. I then visualize this change on a map to show how food prices are changing across the world. To create this tool, I am writing code that pulls the price data from the source, calculates the price percent change and then our team works on visualizing the output for various crops. Currently I am working on a similar project to put the Basis, which is the difference between the spot price of a commodity and a futures contract, on the map.
Why is the development of this price change visualization tool important?
My current work is important because it provides answers. Usually, we don’t understand the size of the problem if we can’t see it. We learn about inflation in the news, but we don’t see it until we are paying at the grocery store and notice that our normal, unchanged basket of goods costs us more now than it did a few months ago. It is one thing to learn about the problem, but it is another to see it. My job is to help users visualize the price changes and inform policymaker responses. Inflation in the United States is high, but it is 3 or 4 times higher in some other countries. Showing this data to the world is more important now than ever. With prices increasing to historic levels in some places, making this data accessible and easy to understand can help users better understand the situation and create solutions more effectively.
How has your work in agricultural supply chains changed about how you perceive current news around food price inflation and increases in food insecurity?
Before working in agricultural supply chains, I did not know much about the problem, and more importantly, I did not know where to start to solve these problems. I learned that there is an upcoming crisis in wheat importing countries according to some experts in the field. And now that I am working with these experts, I can foresee some of the issues that are coming our way, study the problem, and potentially produce time sensitive reports that can minimize the impact of the problem.
What are you working on next?
For my next project, I am continuing to study the impact of crop conditions on the economy. Specifically, I am looking at how crop conditions can change food prices in the markets around the world. This will tell us which prices are decided by economic factors and which prices are decided by an issue like climate change or supply chain.