Building a Global Agricultural Monitoring System of Systems: An Overview of the GEO Agriculture Monitoring Task

Inbal Becker-Reshef at GEO Plenary VI in Washington, D.C. Nov. 17-18, 2009

Inbal Becker-Reshef at GEO Plenary VI in Washington, D.C. Nov. 17-18, 2009


The risk of food supply disruptions will continue to grow as our agricultural systems and the land that sustains them respond to the pressures of climate change, energy and water needs and population increases. Understanding and monitoring global agriculture production is essential to combat both short-term and long-term threats to stable and reliable access to food for all. Strategic investments over the next 10 years in earth observations, involving satellite observations, in-situ (ground-based) measurements and survey could revolutionize global agricultural production monitoring, leading to improved management of our agricultural resources, helping to reduce malnutrition and contribute towards the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. GEO has a critical role to play, working with its partner organizations to coordinate and secure the necessary global observations for agricultural monitoring. This paper describes recent developments in the GEO Agricultural Monitoring Task (Ag 07-03a).


Global agricultural production faces increasing pressure from: more frequent and extreme weather events such as floods, droughts and frosts;  changes in precipitation amounts, seasonality, intensity and distribution; increasing economic pressures;  rising energy costs;  civil conflicts;  rapid population growth;  changing diets;  and land degradation.  Land use change is altering the extent of agricultural land. Extensive new areas are being opened up for agricultural production (for example for soybean and sugar cane production in South America), while in other regions agricultural land is being abandoned and replaced by grass and shrubland (e.g. in the former Soviet Union and the Mediterranean) or by urban or suburban development (e.g. in the US and China). Aquifers are being drawn down at rates beyond replacement and increasing competition for water is placing pressure on irrigation systems. Poverty and conflict continue to undermine food security, particularly in Africa and the Middle-East.  All these pressures combine to place increasing strain on society’s ability to provide an adequate and safe supply of food for an ever-increasing global population. Simply put, there is a limit on the planet’s capacity that we may be rapidly approaching, and we must find ways to increase our world’s agricultural productivity to meet the growing demands of society.

In response to the growing stress on our world’s food supply, the past few years have seen a dramatic increase in the demand for timely, comprehensive, transparent and accurate, global agricultural “intelligence”. Dependable information on agricultural production and production estimates are essential for agricultural markets and for the formulation of effective national and international agricultural policies and improving such information would benefit particularly those agencies working towards increasing food security in the developing world.

Global agriculture monitoring systems are critical to providing this kind of “intelligence.”  Being able to see the “big picture” can lead to the development of fair and efficient global market trading, as well as effective policies on critical issues of today such as climate change, biofuels, and economic growth.  An effective global agriculture monitoring system can provide essential economic and environmental indicators through timely, comprehensive, reliable, and objective information on global croplands distribution and on crop development and condition as the growing season progresses.

For these reasons, the Group on Earth Observations has targeted Agriculture as one of the applications where enhanced international cooperation has the potential to provide a major benefit to society (

There are already a number of established national and international agricultural monitoring systems, which play a fundamental role in the decision-making processes that govern food aid and agricultural products in the global market. There are currently four ‘global’ agricultural monitoring systems, at the Global Information and Early Warning System (GIEWS) Program of the UN FAO, the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS), the Monitoring Agriculture by Remote Sensing (MARS) Project of the European Commission, at the Joint Research Center (JRC Ispra) and the Crop Watch Program at the Institute of Remote Sensing Applications (IRSA) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. In addition, nearly all countries have some form of national agricultural monitoring system. These systems often have similar data requirements and objectives, but up until now, there has been little communication between these systems which could benefit from increased cooperation, shared standards and shared data. Although many of these systems use a combination of ground-based and satellite derived observations they often do not take full advantage of the existing earth observations for providing timely results and there is benefit to be had from integrating remote sensing with traditional ground-based methods. The GEO vision that enhanced observations and better coordination will help meet the increasing demand for reliable information, is being applied to develop an agricultural monitoring system of systems.

The methods used for agricultural monitoring using satellite data were initiated in the 1970s and have been developed as the various sensing and information technologies have evolved. There are however a number of shortcomings to the current and planned earth observation systems for agricultural monitoring, which could be remedied through increased coordination and cooperation. A focused global effort is needed to ensure timely generation and flow of earth observation data and information for agricultural monitoring and to inform policy and decision-makers. This can be achieved through GEO – an international program of cooperation among the earth observation agencies and the agricultural monitoring community, which believes that enhanced observations and better coordination will help meet the increasing demand for reliable information.

The goal of the GEO as an intergovernmental framework is to enhance the availability and use of Earth observations through international coordination, exploiting the growing potential of Earth observations to support decisions. As of December 2009, GEO’s Members included 80 Governments, the European Commission, and 58 intergovernmental, international, and regional organizations.Image of the GEOGlobal Agricultural Monitoring Commounity of Practice logo

The GEO Agricultural Monitoring Task (AG-07-03) and Community of Practice

The GEO Agricultural Monitoring Task (AG-07-03) provides a much-needed framework for a concerted international effort to improve global agricultural monitoring for the benefit of society. To overcome the challenges facing global agriculture, national governments and international organizations and agencies will need to make an unprecedented commitment for coordination of observations and cooperation to enhance the current capabilities and their utilization and ensure long-term observations. This task is jointly led by the USA, European Commission, and China (Chris Justice, University of Maryland; Olivier Leo, EC JRC; and Wu Bingfang, IRSA, CAS). Task AG-07-03 Secretariat is located at Space Applications Centre of ISRO (Jai Singh Parihar, SAC, ISRO). Task AG-07-03 falls within the GEO Agriculture Societal Benefit Area and has three related components – Global Agricultural Monitoring Task Ag-07-03a, Agricultural Risk Ag-07-03b and Capacity Building Ag-07-03c.

The associated GEO Global Agricultural Monitoring Community of Practice (CoP) was established in 2007 at a meeting at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome. This community has close to 200 members representing a wide range of national and international agencies and organizations involved in agriculture. The community is open to all groups involved in various aspects of agricultural monitoring that share the goals of the task and are willing to contribute to task implementation.

Current agricultural monitoring systems operate at a variety of scales with three primary foci:  (1) food security and famine early warning; and (2) production monitoring for ensuring stable global and national markets of agricultural crops (3) monitoring and modeling of agricultural land use change. While some of these systems are quite effective, there are large disparities between the monitoring capabilities of developed and developing nations.  The agricultural statistics generated by the various systems vary in terms of levels of accuracy, availability, transparency, and timeliness.  There is currently little coordination between these systems, despite the fact that they share common data needs and provide similar agricultural information to decision makers.

Recognizing the importance of improving the ability to monitor agricultural systems and the limited extent of international cooperation, a set of well-attended international GEO agriculture monitoring workshops were organized. The first two workshops were jointly held by the Integrated Global Observations for Land (IGOL) and GEO hosted by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome in 2006 and 2007. Representatives of major agricultural monitoring groups from around the world, the agriculture research community, and the major Space Agencies attended. At these workshops an initial strategy for the GEO AG-07-03 task was outlined and the GEO Agricultural Monitoring Community of Practice (CoP) was formed in order to design and implement a Global Agricultural Monitoring System of Systems (GAMSS).  The CoP developed its approach to the GEO Agricultural System of Systems which included:

1.    Developing a common vision for the system amongst the Community of Practice

2.    Establishing the conditions under which such a system can develop

3.    Raising the awareness of the importance of earth observations for agricultural monitoring and the level of national commitments for the Task Activities

4.    Identifying near term practical steps (task activities and initiatives) that would contribute to achieving the vision

The Agriculture Monitoring System of Systems

A common vision for the functionality of the Agricultural Monitoring System of System was developed by the CoP under 5 main themes:

1. Global monitoring of agricultural production, facilitating reduction of risk and increased productivity at a range of scales.
2. Timely and accurate national (sub-national) agricultural statistical reporting.
3.  Accurate forecasting of shortfalls in crop production and food supply.
4. Effective early warning of famine, enabling a timely mobilization of an international response in food aid.
5. Global mapping, monitoring and modeling of changes in agricultural land use, in their social and ecological context and under a changing climate.

Satellite observations, in-situ observations and model outputs are needed to provide information in support of these themes. For example, a combination of seasonal forecast models, agro-meteorological data on rainfall, temperature and humidity, in-situ observations on rainfall and temperature, satellite observations at coarse, moderate and fine scales from optical, thermal and microwave sensors and sample field reports on area planted and crop condition are used to provide critical and timely information on crop type, area planted, crop growth and condition and crop yield.

For agricultural monitoring, multiple spatial and temporal scales of data are needed. In general, satellite observations at five broad spatial scales are needed to monitor agricultural lands. Global coverage of coarse resolution geostationary meteorological satellite data (5km-1km) are needed to provide hourly monitoring of weather conditions and rainfall. Daily, global coverage of coarse resolution polar orbiting data (1km -250m) are needed to provide a cropland mask and to monitor vegetation state and identify anomalies. At the national and sub national scale, two to three coarse to moderate resolution observations (250-20m data) are needed every ten days to provide crop type area and crop specific conditions and anomalies. One to two images of moderate resolution data (20-5m) are needed every ten days to provide information on crop type, crop stage and other crop variables at the parcel level. One to two fine resolution observations (5-1m) per month are needed to provide sample point interpretation and sub-parcel variability, which can feed crop growth models used in yield estimation.

If the currently available satellite systems were operated in concert, these multi-scale requirements could be met currently for selected regions around the world. To develop full global capability the current systems would need to be enhanced, particularly with respect to the current areal and temporal coverage of the moderate resolution systems. It should also be noted that for areas of persistent cloud cover, observations from moderate resolution microwave systems would be needed.Image of Workshop Report logo and poster

Enabling Conditions for the Agriculture Monitoring System of Systems

The Community of Practice recognizes that to implement this Global Agricultural Monitoring System of Systems a number of enabling conditions would need to be established. An increased level of cooperation will be needed amongst national governments, the space agencies, commercial data providers and weather services. Non-prohibitive data pricing polices allowing for free and open sharing of data will be needed, allowing for affordable regional agricultural monitoring. The timely availability of observations and data will be essential. Coordinated data acquisition would be needed during the agricultural growing season. Continuity of earth observation will need to be ensured, to enable operational information delivery services to receive a reliable flow of data. Improved coverage and availability of meteorological data will also be needed for a number of regions of the World, particularly for Africa. Best practices, standardized data products and reporting and validated satellite products will also be needed. The integration of satellite data into national operational agricultural monitoring systems will be needed, particularly in developing countries and a program of capacity building for enhanced agricultural monitoring will be essential.

The Community of Practice believes that although the objective of developing a Global Agricultural System of Systems is ambitious, with the political will of the international community, it is entirely feasible. While the GEO is helping to establish these enabling conditions globally, the Community of Practice will focus its effort on five areas: monitoring production of the major crop exporting countries, with an emphasis on timeliness reporting standards and accuracies; monitoring countries at risk, with an emphasis on early warning; improving national agricultural estimates using earth observations with an emphasis on timeliness of data and capacity building; monitoring of agricultural land use change; and monitoring and forecasting the impacts of climate change on  agricultural production and distribution.

GEO Task AG-07-03 Near-Term Implementation Plan

The CoP recognizes that in order to build this system of systems it is necessary to start with a set of near term tasks that are feasible and realistic. Therefore a near-term implementation plan was developed at a major planning workshop on developing the agricultural monitoring system of systems, held in February 2009 in Beijing, hosted by the IRSA of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. This workshop was held jointly with the partner GEO Tasks on Agricultural Risk Management (AG- 07-03b) and Agricultural Capacity Building (AG-07-03c). Over 100 attendees representing more than 50 national and international organizations concerned with agricultural monitoring and global food security participated in the workshop. Through the discussions and breakout sessions the CoP proposed a series of activities that were grouped into four near-term initiatives:

A Production, Acreage, Yield (PAY) multi-source online database Initiative

At present four different groups generate agricultural statistics on a regular basis for multiple countries: the USDA FAS, JRC (Joint Research Center) – Ispra MARS (Monitoring Agricultural ResourceS) Unit, IRSA (Institute of Remote Sensing Applications) CropWatch and the UN FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization) Global GIEWS (Global Infomration and Early Warning System).  The crop statistics from these programs are a critical factor in determining global commodity prices and identifying countries in need of food aid. To allow for comparisons between crop statistics generated by these agencies, the participants decided to develop a common centralized online database of Production, Area, and Yield (PAY). This PAY database will enable identification of agreements and disagreements in national level crop statistics, providing a convergence of evidence for similar statistics and helping identify areas that should be looked at more carefully where statistics differ significantly. Initially the database is being populated with national level estimates from the four programs identified above and will later be expanded to include statistics from individual countries. An initial PAY data base is being developed by the Global Agricultural Monitoring Project (GLAM), a NASA, USDA-FAS, University of Maryland, and South Dakota State University collaboration and is currently in a testing and evaluation phase.

The Joint Experiments on Crop Assessment and Monitoring Initiative (JECAM)

The goal of the JECAM experiments is to facilitate the inter-comparison of monitoring and modeling methods, product accuracy assessments, data fusion, and product integration, for agricultural monitoring.  The plan to accomplish this is to set up a number of regional experiments in cropland pilot sites around the world that are representative of a range of agricultural systems.  The idea is to collect time series datasets from a variety of earth observing satellites and in-situ data sources at each site. To this end the Committee on Earth Observing Satellites (CEOS) as the space-arm of GEO and other data providers are supporting this activity with the acquisition and timely provision of data for the experiments.

The objective of JECAM is to compare data from disparate sources, methods, and results over a variety of cropping systems; to reach a convergence of the monitoring and modeling approaches; and to develop monitoring and reporting protocols and best practices for different agricultural systems. It is hoped that these comparative experiments will enable international standards to be developed for data products and reporting; offer a unique opportunity for the agricultural Community of Practice to collaborate on selected sites to compare and share methods and products; identify gaps and the utility of current in-orbit EO instruments and the effectiveness of their acquisition capabilities, according to the different cropping systems; help determine the requirements for improving future EO systems for agricultural monitoring;  and start to  prototype a system of systems for agriculture monitoring.

The JECAM kickoff meeting was held in November 2009 at the International GEO Workshop on Synthetic Aperature Radar (SAR) in Support of Agricultural Monitoring, a CoP workshop hosted by GEO Canada and Agriculture and Agrifood Canada.  At this meeting GEO Canada offered to take the lead on coordinating this initiative and to establish the JECAM project office that will help setup the experiments, facilitate data sharing, and coordinate data acquisition, synthesize the results, and report on the program findings.  Several JECAM sites have been proposed and are currently in the design and implementation phases. These include: JECAM-Canada, JECAM-China, JECAM–Argentina, JECAM–Brazil, JECAM-EU (Flevoland), JECAM-Kazakhstan, JECAM-Ukraine, JECAM-Mexico, and JECAM-Ethiopia.Image of a GEO Global Agricultural Monitoring System of Systems website screenshot

The Coordinated Data Initiatives for Global Agricultural Monitoring (CDIGAM) Initiative

A priority for building a global monitoring system is accessibility to timely and frequent satellite data during the growing season, and ensuring the continuity of these observing systems. Several data initiatives have been identified under CDIGAM. A partnership with the GEO Task DA 0903 led by the USGS and NASA, has been fostered to develop a global moderate resolution, ortho-rectified data set (60–30-m) from multiple international data sources for 2010. This will build on the previous NASA/USGS Global Land Surveys for 1990, 2000, and 2005, and will provide data needed for monitoring agricultural land use change. Also under CDIGAM, members of the CoP are compiling the best available information on global agricultural areas, crop calendars, and cropping systems. The USAID Famine Early Warning System (FEWS) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) are leading an effort to identify critical gaps in the current in-situ meteorological observations for Africa and to explore the means that can be used to fill these gaps. The Global Agricultural Monitoring Project in partnership with NASA is leading an effort to provide near-real-time NASA MODIS data through the NASA Land Atmosphere Near real-time Capabilities for EOS (LANCE) program.  Other data initiatives that have been proposed include the development of a global field size database using multi-resolution data and the formulation of a coordinated global satellite data acquisition strategy for agricultural areas.

A free and open data policy remains a high priority for the Global Agricultural Monitoring community and will to a large degree determine the success of the Task and ultimately GEOSS as a whole. The GLAMSS CoP is committed to promoting an equitable data policy, allowing sharing of data among the community. Recent developments, such as the free and open access to Landsat data and the entire Landsat archive by the USGS, the continued free and open availability of MODIS data by NASA, and recent data commitments by China and Brazil provide some positive steps in the right direction by data providers.

The Global Agricultural Monitoring System of Systems (GLAMSS) Thematic Workshop Series [GTWS] Initiative

Community workshops are needed to discuss a number of thematic and methodological topics to improve communication among the CoP, to develop best practices and standards, and to identify opportunities for coordination and encourage cooperation. A number of thematic workshops have already been held by the CoP.   In 2008 the Joint Research Centre (JRC) and ISPRA hosted a workshop on Crop Area Estimation. A best practices document developed at this workshop can be found here. The JRC also hosted a workshop on Satellite Rainfall Estimation in 2008 and a follow-up workshop will be held in 2010. GEO-Canada and Agriculture and Agrifood Canada jointly hosted a large thematic workshop on the use of Synthetic Aperture Radar in support of Agricultural Monitoring, in Kananaskis, Canada, in November 2009. India hosted a joint workshop of the ISPRS WGVIII/6 and the GEO Task Ag 0703 on Climate Change and Agriculture at the ISRO’s Space Applications Centre (SAC) in Ahmedabad, in December 2009 ( Workshop reports can be found on the GEO CoP website ( A number of community workshops are currently being planned for 2010 and 2011 and will be announced on the CoP website as well.

2015 AG-07-03 Task Targets

As part of the GEO Secretariat coordination, a set of 2015 Targets has been developed for each GEO Task. The targets for Ag-07-03a are to:

•    Develop a coordinated global agricultural monitoring system of systems, combining information from multiple observing and reporting systems, providing timely, objective, reliable, and transparent information to support global food security.

•    Enhance monitoring and modeling systems to utilize EO capabilities to provide timely, objective, reliable, and transparent agricultural statistics and information at the national level.

•    Establish a global coordinated early warning system of systems to anticipate shortfalls or anomalies in agricultural production to facilitate timely intervention and the provision of advice on appropriate actions.

To achieve these targets, we recognize the need for extensive capacity building in the use of Earth observations for agricultural monitoring. Although GEO agricultural capacity building will be led by Task (Ag-07-03b) which was established solely for that purpose, a number of capacity building activities will be undertaken jointly with Ag 0703a. In this regard, the GEO Secretariat will need to continue to identify support for developing country scientists to attend and actively participate in the GTWS and JECAM initiatives. Offers to host capacity building training sessions and workshops on different aspects of agricultural monitoring have already been made by ISRO, IRSA and the Canadian Group on Earth Observations (CGEO). Support is now needed for developing country participants to attend these sessions.

To achieve the targets, cooperation and coordination will also be needed between different international programs. The Agricultural Monitoring Task will where possible build on existing organizations, structures and capabilities, for example by undertaking joint workshops. Monitoring agricultural land use change will need to be undertaken in concert with the existing forest and land cover mapping communities and to this end a close partnership is being established with the GOFC-GOLD Program, which is part of the Global Terrestrial Observing System (GTOS). Similarly the Task will need to work in concert with working groups of the CEOS, addressing information systems and services (WGISS) and calibration and validation (WGCV).

The CoP is coming together through a series of open meetings and workshops and the emerging joint experiments. Participation in the Task is open and additional participants, agencies and institutions are welcome to contribute to the aforementioned initiatives and will be needed to help implement the system. The current participants are establishing the initial building blocks for the system of systems, identifying and implementing a selected number of near-term activities intended to make a significant and tangible difference.

The GEO and the GEO Secretariat will assist the Task, working with its international partners to help establish the conditions under which this Task can succeed, including the active advancement of open data policies, enhancing the in-situ meteorological observations in food insecure regions, securing space agency commitments for a concerted data acquisition strategy for agricultural areas and long term operational data continuity from the required monitoring systems.

The above stated targets present a challenge for the CoP, however all of the essential components envisioned for the system have been demonstrated in the research domain, some are being implemented as operational prototypes and others are already operational. What is needed at this time is the commitment of the space agencies, the international community and the national governments to bring the Global Agricultural Monitoring System of Systems to fruition.