A global effort to make agricultural projections available to anyone with an Internet connection may hold the key to fighting hunger and reducing poverty.
On a hot and humid June day in 1943, with World War II still raging in Europe and the Pacific, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt welcomed delegates from around the world to the first-ever United Nations Conference on Food and Agriculture. The significance of the gathering, as well as the magnitude of its ambition, was reflected in the fact that it was the first U.N. meeting of any kind, and the official founding of the global organization was still two years off.
“A sound world agricultural program will depend upon world political security,” FDR told the delegates from 44 nations, representing 75 percent of the world’s population, “while that security will in turn be greatly strengthened if each country can be assured of the food it needs.”
The meeting had been a long time in coming — about 12,000 years, if you count back to when humans made the transition from hunting and gathering in small bands to practicing agriculture in permanent settlements. Cultivating plants allowed civilizations to flourish, but it couldn’t have taken long for our ancestors to encounter a downside: crop failure and famine. Our species has been reaping the benefits of agriculture while simultaneously grappling with the specter of mass hunger and starvation ever since. FDR was famously partial to rhetorical flourishes (such as “a rendezvous with destiny” and “a day that will live in infamy”) but his description of the 1943 U.N. conference as “epoch making” was apt.
At a U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) conference exactly two decades after the one FDR addressed, President John F. Kennedy acknowledged a singular advance in what he termed the “worldwide commitment to banish hunger.”
“There is no battle on earth or in space,” Kennedy told delegates, “more important than the battle which you have undertaken.”
The crucial word in Kennedy’s message was, of course, “space.”
Advances in science, technology and engineering combined to begin work on a revolutionary new weapon in the fight against hunger: satellites that could track changes across the planet from hundreds of miles above. Within a decade, the United States had launched the Earth Resources Technology Satellite 1. Later renamed Landsat, it was the first in a series of Earth Observation (EO) satellites that have been gathering data without interruption for 40 years.
Today, another revolution is underway – one that combines advances in Earth observation technologies of the Landsat program with the cooperative spirit behind the first world food conference.
“There’s never been an international system quite like this,” says Alyssa Whitcraft, assistant research professor at University of Maryland and a program scientist at the Group on Earth Observations Global Agricultural Monitoring initiative (GEOGLAM).
GEOGLAM is unique because it is building a “system of systems” that aims to be greater than the sum of its parts. Those parts — national and international agricultural monitoring agencies — leverage data acquired by satellites from several nations and ground-based observations to develop national-to-global scale detailed crop condition information. GEOGLAM then provides the means to produce international consensus reports on global crop conditions. These monthly reports, known as the Crop Monitor, are freely available to anyone with an Internet connection.
“Open access to the reports and to the information behind them,” says Whitcraft, “can improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers in countries-at-risk.”
The open data also can lessen market volatility — the large fluctuations in food prices that can have disastrous results, particularly for the millions of people in developing nations who spend more than half their income on food. Between June 2010 and January 2011, for example, rising food prices pushed 44 million people into poverty, according to the World Bank. These price hikes are associated with higher levels of malnutrition, as people are forced to eat less or buy cheaper, less nutritious food.
“If everyone has the same information at the same time, we level the playing field and reduce volatility,” says Whitcraft.
GEOGLAM was launched in June 2011 at a meeting of the G20 Agricultural Ministers, in response to the dramatic food price hikes of the previous year. The G20’s Action Plan on Food Price Volatility and Agriculture called for better crop production projections and weather forecasting data.
GEOGLAM evolved out of an existing agriculture monitoring program at the Group on Earth Observations (GEO) — a partnership between nations and international organizations working to use EO data for societal benefit. GEOGLAM monitors staple crops with an emphasis on rice, soybeans, wheat, and maize (corn), crops that together account for 70 percent of the calories consumed by humans. Since its creation, GEOGLAM has been broadening the list to monitor other regionally important crops such as millet and sorghum.
GEOGLAM is a voluntary, bottom-up organization of national, regional, and global monitoring systems with three core components:
- Global and regional systems
- National capacity building
- Monitoring countries at risk.
The core programs are linked by three crosscutting themes: coordinating satellite data, research and development of best practices across agricultural landscapes, and the development of capacity for utilizing EO for monitoring.
So-called “Big Data” isn’t an end in itself, says Whitcraft, who leads GEOGLAM’s data coordination effort. In fact, it’s just the beginning of a complex process. Ensuring that petabytes of targeted and accurate data actually reach end users in a timely and reliable fashion is central to GEOGLAM’s mission.
“You can acquire data until the cows come home,” she says. “But if the data isn’t available, you can only go so far. If people can’t rely on data availability and continuity, they won’t build a system to use it. And then the whole puzzle falls apart.”
The need for an agricultural-based “system of systems” has never been more important, with population growth being the most obvious reason. There were 2.3 billion people living on the planet when FDR welcomed the delegates to the White House. That figure has tripled to more than 7 billion people today, and it’s expected to rise to 9 billion by 2050.
Improvements in crop yields helped production keep pace with population growth for decades – even as the total number of acres devoted to crops worldwide declined. But there is mounting evidence that this trend may be faltering. Between 1968 and 1987, the world experienced just three “deficit” years, periods when global food production fell short of what was needed to feed the planet’s growing population. During that time, the global grain surplus averaged 1.07 percent. Between 1988 and 2007, however, the number of deficit years increased by four-fold (up to 12 years), with a net crop shortfall of 0.05 percent for the period.
Human-caused climate change is making the challenge of feeding a hungry planet even more complex. A report released earlier this year by a British government taskforce concluded that an increase in extreme weather events — including droughts, floods, and heat waves — may make the global food system more vulnerable to crop failures and resulting production shocks.
Though the report by the Global Food Security programme stressed the preliminary nature of its findings, its authors estimated that “the risk of a 1-in-100 year production shock is likely to increase to 1-in-30 or more by 2040.” That’s a sobering assessment, particularly given estimates that the world will need 60 percent more food by 2050.Human-caused climate change is making the challenge of feeding a hungry planet even more difficult. A report released earlier this year by a British government taskforce concluded that an increase in extreme weather events — including droughts, floods, and heat waves — may make the global food system more vulnerable to crop failures and production price shocks.
There are also technical hurdles to conducting the type of monitoring needed to make timely and accurate crop projections over the face of the planet. By its very nature, agricultural land — which includes crops, rangeland, and pastures — is much harder to monitor than, say, forests.
“Agriculture is the most human of all landscapes,” explains Whitcraft. “It’s subject to the laws of nature, and then there are people who intervene. You can’t forget the human factor.”
The complexity of the problem means that the solutions are necessarily complex, integrating the latest in remote sensing technologies with rubber-boots-on-the-ground observations using thermometers and rain gauges.
Much progress has been made, but Whitcraft acknowledges that, “we have huge challenges in front of us. The problem of feeding the planet hasn’t been solved.”
But she believes that with continued support for international cooperation and open data, what FDR in the summer of 1943 called “the war against fear and want” can be won.
“I’m not an optimist for the sake of optimism,” she says, “but I do know that every person has something to contribute. With GEOGLAM, we now have the power to improve the kinds of information that can contribute to sound policy. The downstream effect can reduce human suffering.”