If you take the long view, our world is much better fed than it used to be. In the 1970s, about one-third of people in developing countries were undernourished; today the number is 13 percent. Even as global population has increased, it has been a long time since the horrific famines that claimed 5 million lives or more in the Soviet Union, China, Europe, and India during the 20th Century.
However, serious food shortages remain a fact of life. Roughly 815 million people were undernourished in 2016, according to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization. That is an increase of 38 million people from 2015, making 2016 the first year in more than a decade that the world grew hungrier. The grim trend was driven largely by armed conflicts in South Sudan, Yemen, Nigeria, and Syria.
Meanwhile, other problems loom. Climate change is already starting to exacerbate famines, as temperature and precipitation patterns shift. Many experts worry that food production systems may struggle to adapt in coming decades. Even if problems caused by climate change turn out to be modest, global populations are expected to increase to 10 billion people by 2050, and the demand for food will likely go up by 50 percent or more as people in the developing world increase their income and consume foods that require more resources to produce.
Solving global problems sometimes requires a global view, so NASA’s Applied Sciences Program is working to make sure the world’s food systems are ready for the future. Researchers and program managers have created an agency-wide initiative to put remote sensing data and knowledge into the hands of people who can advance agriculture and reduce world hunger.
Earth Matters sat down with Sean McCartney, coordinator of NASA’s new Food Security Office, to learn more.
Earth Matters: How did NASA get involved with food security?
McCartney: People sometimes forget that NASA’s charter states that one of the agency’s key objectives is “the expansion of human knowledge of the Earth and of phenomena in the atmosphere and space.” There are currently around 20 Earth-observing satellites that collect data on the hydrosphere, biosphere, and atmosphere. NASA has been able to leverage this data through scientific analysis and modeling to better understand food systems on a global scale.
Chart courtesy of NASA’s Earth Observing System Project Science Office.
The food security initiative is part of our Applied Sciences Program, which does outreach with end users and showcases Earth observations. Through this program, NASA began to work with the United Nations on Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs), a global effort to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all. Some of the goals relate to water and food security, and NASA leadership believed that that was an area where Earth observations could really contribute. Getting involved with the SGDs dovetailed with the establishment of the Food Security Office.
How do satellites and Earth-observing data relate to the food situation on the ground?
We already do a lot with satellites to monitor major commodity crops like rice, maize, wheat, and soy. We can use satellites to help track key crop characteristics, such as the “greenness” of vegetation (NDVI), crop type, the acreage and distribution of crops, precipitation, soil moisture, evapotranspiration, and more. This sort of environmental data is incorporated into important crop assessment reports, such as the GEOGLAM Crop Monitor, a monthly bulletin on conditions for major crops around the world.
Likewise, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) uses satellite data as part of its Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET), which produces frequent reports on food conditions in 34 of the most famine-prone countries in the world.
What we’re trying to do is optimize programs and tools like these — and develop others — and get them into the right hands at the right time. NASA assets help inform governments, NGOs, the private sector, and other stakeholders to anticipate and react to food shortages.
What are the main priorities of the new office?
A lot of the efforts so far have been through a partnership with the Earth Observations for Food Security and Agriculture Consortium (EOFSAC), a program led by the University of Maryland. The consortium is a really multidisciplinary group, which is what makes it so exciting. It has roughly 40 partner organizations from government, NGOs, international organizations, universities, and the private sector all working together. You can see a full list of the partners here.
What is on the consortium’s agenda?
Partnering with both the private and public sector—for instance, USDA and USAID—is one focus. They are going to be looking at innovative ways where Earth observations can provide value to end users. That might involve working with the reinsurance industry to provide them with a broad view of crops or working with USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service to develop ways of incorporating more satellite data into their workflow.
In February 2018, the consortium sponsored a workshop at the National Agricultural Library focusing on emerging technologies in Earth observations. Presenters highlighted several new sensors and data sets that are now being applied to agriculture — such as soil moisture, solar induced fluorescence, and satellite-derived precipitation. For a full account of the meeting, you can read the minutes here.
Photo courtesy of EOFSAC.
How would you say the world is doing in regards to food security?
It really depends on the country. If you look at overall food production, even in countries that are in need, they might be producing adequate food, but they don’t have access to markets, so they can’t get that food to people before it spoils.
Is it possible to follow some of these organizations and projects on social media?
Yes, check out @EOFSAC, @GEOCropMonitor, @FEWSNET, @G20_GEOGLAM, and @AgMIPnews.
Fire on Bellandur Lake on January 19, 2018. Photo by pee vee.
In Bengaluru, India, one of the city’s lakes is so polluted with sewage, trash, and industrial chemicals that it has an alarming habit of catching on fire. As recently as January 19, 2018, fire broke out on Bellandur Lake and burned for seven hours.
The same lake is notorious for churning up large amounts of white foam that has, at times, spilled from the lake and enveloped nearby streets, cars, and bridges. The water is so polluted that it can’t be used for drinking or bathing or even irrigation.
Bellandur Lake is not the only lake in Bengaluru with water quality problems. During a recent check, not one of the hundreds of lakes that the city tested was clean enough to be used for drinking or bathing.
Foamy water flowing into Bellandur Lake. Photo by Kannon B.
I point this out on World Water Day to underscore that Bengaluru’s water woes, though extreme, are not particularly uncommon. According to the United Nations, a quarter of all people on the planet lack access to safely managed drinking water, and 40 percent of people live in areas where water scarcity is a problem. Roughly 80 percent of wastewater flows back into ecosystems untreated. Even in the United States, tens of millions of people may be exposed to unsafe drinking water, according to one recently published study.
Even in the course of reporting for this website from a satellite perspective, we see signs of trouble. Capetown was on the verge of running out of water in February 2018. Drought pushed São Paulo’s reservoirs to near empty in recent years. The GRACE satellites have observed rapid depletion of groundwater in several critical aquifers. On more than one occasion, we have reported on rainbow-colored escaped mine tailings contaminating waterways.
NASA Earth Observatory image by Jesse Allen, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey. Learn more about the image here.
To push back against such problems, NASA’s Earth Science Division, and particularly its applied sciences program, is doing what it can to marshal the agency’s resources to make countries aware of what NASA resources are available to monitor and reduce the impact of water-related problems.
As one piece of its water program, NASA scientists and staff are working with the United Nations to highlight key NASA datasets, tools, and satellite-based monitoring capabilities that may help countries meet the 17 sustainable development goals established by the international body. Goal number 6—that countries ensure the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all—has been a particular focus of the NASA teams.
NASA and NOAA satellites collect several types of data that may be useful for water management. Sensors such as the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) and the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) collect daily data and images of water bodies around the planet that can be used to track the number and extent of lakes and reservoirs.
The same sensors collect information about water color, which scientists use to detect sediment, chlorophyll-a (a product of phytoplankton and algae blooms), colored dissolved organic matter (CDOM), and other indicators of water quality.
The strength of MODIS and VIIRS is that these sensors collect daily imagery; the downside is that the data is relatively coarse. However, another family of satellites, Landsat, carries sensors that provide more than 10 times as much detail.
The combination of information from multiple satellites collected over time can be powerful. For instance, as we reported previously, a team of scientists based in China used decades of Landsat data to track a 30 percent decrease in the total surface area of lakes in Inner Mongolia between the 1980s and 2010. The scientists attributed the losses to warming temperatures, decreased precipitation, and increased mining and agricultural activity.
This map above depicts 375 lakes within Inner Mongolia that experienced a loss in water surface area between 1987-2010. The large, purple circles indicate a complete loss of water. Learn more about the map here.
Meanwhile, one of NASA’s scientists, Nima Pahlevan, is in the process of building an early warning system based on Landsat and Sentinel-2 data that will be used to alert water managers in near-real time when satellites detect high levels of chlorophyll-a, an indicator that harmful algal blooms could be present. While some blooms are harmless, outbreaks of certain types of organisms lead to fish kills and dangerous contamination of seafood. His team is working on a prototype system for Lake Mead in Nevada (see below), Indian River Lagoon in Florida, and certain reservoirs in Oregon. Eventually, he hopes to have a tool available that can be used globally.
“The idea is that we can get the information to water managers quickly about where satellites are seeing suspicious blooms, and then folks on the ground will know where to test water to determine if there’s a harmful algae bloom,” said Pahvalen. “We’re not suggesting that satellites can replace on-the-ground sampling, but they can be a great complement and make that work much work more efficient and less costly.”
To learn more about how satellites can be used to aid in the monitoring of water quality, see this workshop report and harmful algal bloom training module from NASA’s ARSET program.