The Geo-Green revolution

The Geo-Green revolution


From determining land-use and crop patterns to optimising resources, automated farming to use of UAVs, technological advances could change the face of agriculture, which is under tremendous pressure given the growing population, urbanisation and climate change

A robotic device on the ground, UAVs in action, remotely controlled high-tech machines, and a room full of highly trained people to keep an eye on all the activities… It’s not a war-room scene or a post-disaster situation in any part of the world. This could very well be the future of agriculture. As the threats of climate change, erosion of land and water resources, and an emerging food crisis loom large, traditional practices of farming are fast changing as scientists are rigorously experimenting with new ideas to revolutionise mankind’s age-old vocation even in developing/underdeveloped nations in a view to feed the ever-increasing global population.

If the idea of experimentation with traditional farming methods strives to improve socio-economic condition, it is also needed to meet the demand of 70% more food by 2050 (a FAO projection in 2005-06). World population is expected to grow by over a third, or 2.3 billion, between 2005 and 2050. Moreover, a revised version of the FAO report in 2012 observed that the world has made significant progress in raising per capita food consumption, which increased from an average of 2,370 kcal per person per day to 2,770 kcal per person per day in the last three and a half decades. Simply put, this means more food intake per head. However, our already overburdened planet has apparently no more arable land or fresh water to spare. The OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2013 warns that growth rate in agricultural production is likely to slow in the medium term with “limited slower area expansion and slower productivity growth”.

In such a situation, even as scientists look to experimenting with farming in the sub-zero environs of Antarctica or exploring the depths of the oceans, boosting crop yields on existing farmlands by embracing modern technologies like GIS, remote sensing and GNSS to meet the rising demands is but a natural and simpler solution. The reason is not difficult to guess. According to a report by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, modern technology enabled farmers in North America to get the highest outputs in the world. There, a farm worker produces about $90,000 of crops and livestock per year, compared to the global average of about $2,000. A recent survey of soybean growers conducted by US-based PrecisionAg Institute in cooperation with the American Soybean Association (ASA) reported an average savings of about 15% with precision farming on crop inputs such as seed, fertiliser and chemicals.

It is not without a reason that Raymond O’Connor, President, Topcon Positioning Systems, counts agriculture as the one of two largest manufacturing industries in the world, representing between $8 to 10 trillion a year, but as the least automated and having the biggest potential for embracing geospatial technologies. In 2000, the agriculture industry’s use of precision measurement equipment was probably less than $100 million; in 2012, it was more than $1 billion. Trimble, the no. 1 player in this area, has carved out a separate vertical for agriculture as its agri business crossed a hundred million dollars from less than $10-million in 1999. Realising the utility and potential of spatial information, John Deere, the US-based agriculture machinery giant, has set up a complete geospatial division as also an automated crop reporting service.

Driving factors of agriculture
The food crises of 2008, 2010, and 2012 as well as the continuous volatility in commodity prices underscore the vulnerability of the global food system. Now, more than ever, the world needs to increase investment in agriculture, which is two to four times more effective in raising incomes among the very poor compared to other sectors, according to the World Bank. The FAO estimates that private sector investment in agriculture alone must rise nearly 50% (from $142 billion a year to $209 billion a year) to meet the current requirements. Like in other businesses, population growth and urbanisation are the primary driving factors for agriculture too. Add climate change and degrading soil quality, and we have a lethal cocktail in hand.

»Population growth: According to a FAO projection, feeding the global population of 9.1 billion in 2050 would require raising food production by around 70% between 2005-07 and 2050. Annual cereal production, for instance, would have to grow by almost 1 billion tonne while meat production has to rise by over 200 million tonne to a total of 470 million tonne in 2050. This leads to the need for improved resource management, which would increase crop yields, preventing land degradation and providing sustainable livelihoods for millions of rural poor.

»Urbanisation: The world population is expected to be 69% urban by 2050, according to a UN estimate. Negative impacts of urbanisation on food and nutrition security without planning for both urban and rural food and agriculture systems include reduced land for agriculture, changing of food consumption habits with increased demand for processed foods, high literacy rate and subsequent lack of farm labour.

Urbanisation is also leading to problems of agricultural land management. In 1960, when the world population numbered only 3 billion, approximately 0.5 hectare of cropland was available per capita, the minimum area considered essential for the production of a diverse, healthy, nutritious diet of plant and animal products. With more than 7 billion population to feed, the per capita available cropland today has come down to 0.23 hectare.

»Food losses: Roughly one-third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year, or approximately 1.3 billion tonne, gets lost or wasted, amounting to roughly $680 billion in industrialised countries and $310 billion in developing nations, says a FAO report. In medium- and high-income countries, food is wasted and lost mainly at later stages in the supply chain, which is the result of lack of coordination between actors in the supply chain.

»Climatic conditions: Agriculture and climate change are interrelated. Increases in temperature and CO2 can be beneficial for some crops in some places. To realise these benefits, nutrient levels, soil moisture, water availability, and other conditions must also be met. Changes in the frequency and severity of droughts and floods too pose great challenges.

»Climate change: Optimisation of resources is essential to pursue sustainable production in agriculture and livestock to preserve the environment and, consequently, forests and biodiversity. “High-yield agriculture with optimisation processes will help slow the pace of global warming by cutting the amount of biomass burned when forests or grasslands are cleared for farming,” says Claudio Simão, President, Hexagon, South America & Asia Pacific.

Technological intervention in crop cycle
The Farmer’s Almanac has been replaced with geospatial analysis and predictive modelling and got a new name, Precision Agriculture. It is a farming concept that utilises the whole gamut of geospatial technologies and information to determine field variability for ensuring optimal use of inputs and maximising outputs from a farm. Modern technologies like UAVs (embedded with innovative sensors), GIS, GNSS, remote sensing and associated technologies enable farmers to visualise their land, crops and management practices in unprecedented ways while empowering community planners, economists and agronomists to research and devise practices towards sustainable food production. These tools are increasing productivity and return on investment and also driving the demand for tailored applications.

» Farm site evaluation: To evaluate the farm in its whole, it is necessary to draw a map indicating the farm’s topography, boundaries as well as soil and water resources. Site evaluation is important to ensure minimum cost and correct drainage and for this agricultural bodies use soil and terrain data, climate data for the given land type and climate zone, land type inventory and description of soil, depth and the presence or absence of structures that effect the infiltration of water. A typical example here is the Web Soil Survey, launched by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in August 2005.

» Laser levelling: The field is levelled with a certain degree of slope using a guided laser beam. Unevenness of the soil surface has a significant impact on the germination, stand and yield of crops. On laser-levelled land, farmers save up to 30% of water, reduce weed problems, improve uniformity of crop maturity, reduce the irrigation time and effort required to manage crop, improve crop establishment and improve yield. The laser levelling technology is promoted in developing regions through a number of ADB-funded projects. Although the adoption of such smart technologies is still in its infancy amongst small private farms in Asia, they have seen a great demand among the growing number of custom applicators and contractors that serve these small farms, with the result that these technologies are finding their way into some of the smallest farms in the world, says Martinez.

» Precision seeding: It involves placing of the exact number of seeds at precise depth and spacing. Some of the advantages of precision seeding include reduced seed costs, greater crop uniformity leading to uniform and high-quality produce, fewer harvests, and 20-50% increased yield.

» Crop monitoring: Geospatial technology facilitates realtime crop vegetation index monitoring via spectral analysis of high resolution satellite images for different fields and crops. The difference in vegetation index informs about single crop development disproportions that speak for the necessity of additional agriculture works on particular field zones. While satellite imagery has for years been used by various national governments for monitoring crops, the growing demand for such services has seen the proliferation of private service providers like Astrium-Geo, Cropio, eLeaf, GMV, Precision Agriculture, Skybox Imaging and Vega.

» Precision harvesting: GNSS-based harvesting technology can be used on vehicle guidance, which is a hands-free device attached with grain carts, and supports the entire operational hours of harvesting. In integration with modern communication tools, GNSS enabled vehicle-to-vehicle information sharing of yield and moisture layers, wireless transfer of guidance lines and coverage maps between multiple, spotting vehicle locations throughout the field for efficient route management for harvesters and grain carts, and calculating how much field area has been harvested.

» Precision weather forecasting: According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), weather-related incidents cause 90% of all crop losses. To deal with weather issues and get the best price from the market, weather-modelling services use Big Data analytics technology. For instance, IBM’s Deep Thunder gathers data from sensors placed throughout fields that measure temperature and moisture levels in soil and surrounding air. That information is combined with multispectral satellite or aerial images of fields. The system then combines the field data with a diversity of public data from NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the US Geological Survey, and private data from companies like Earth Networks. A supercomputer processes the combined data and generates a 4D mathematical model. Deep Thunder can deliver hyperlocalised weather conditions up to three days in advance.

From applications as simple as improved water management through the use of laser technology for land levelling or GNSS-powered auto steering to improve productivity of the equipment or variable rate application of seeds or fertilisers to improve crop health and yield, precision agriculture is realising adoption across a wide range of farm sizes and economies of scale, observes Albert Zahalka, President, Topcon Precision Agriculture.

“Geospatial technology can provide up to 30% RoI, depending on seasons and solutions,” says Michael Martinez, Market Manager, Trimble Agriculture, as he points out Trimble’s GreenSeeker system enabled the University of Kentucky to calculate an RoI of $15 to $95 per acre on its plantation. Agrees Zahalka: “Today equipment efficiency drives significant adoption of technologies such as auto steering, Variable Rate Application and automatic on/off for sprayer or planters.” On the other hand, in developing countries like India, where farm sizes are typically small, precision agriculture is yet to take off since the machinery are not affordable. However, Michael Martinez, Market Manager, Trimble Agriculture, insists that it is a big misconception that precision farming cannot be used in small farms. “Precision farming is being used across many small Asian rice fields, including India, China, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia and Cambodia.”

G-powered initiatives in agriculture
Historically the application of geospatial information was reserved to concrete application areas, such as disaster reduction. Specialised agencies like FAO made use of geospatial information, particularly earth observation (EO), for general surveys. The global land cover and forest resources assessments are some examples. However, for most initiatives, the broader context of the integration of geoinformation used for and generated by the project was left to countries.

More recently, multilateral agencies have adopted a more strategic approach towards geoinformation for mapping of their own activities and advice to partner countries. The ‘mapping for results’ initiative of the World Bank and the United Nations Spatial Data Infrastructure initiative are examples. Geoinformation also plays a role in developing agriculture insurance schemes supported by multilateral agencies. This also applies to monitoring of food security. The UN Office for Drugs and Crime has made use of EO for a long time to detect coca and poppy plantations.

Although not technically a multilateral agency, the Group on Earth Observations (GEO) has invested substantially in the GEONETCast programme, where free satellite imagery obtained through low-cost receiving stations is used for detection of agricultural pests, among others. It’s GEO Global Agricultural Monitoring (GEO GLAM) initiative, part of the G20 Action Plan on Food Price Volatility, uses EO satellite data and validates this using in situ measurements. The aim is to deliver reliable, accurate, timely and sustained crop monitoring information, and yield and weather forecasts.

Remote sensing images showing agriculture patterns in different countries

»World Bank: The Water Partnership Programme (WPP) of the World Bank in its planning document for the next few years has identified remote sensing as a technology to be explored further. The World Bank is also experimenting with community participatory mapping. As part of its new policy, Access to Information, and building on the success of the Open Data Initiative, the World Bank developed the interactive ‘Mapping for Results’ platform in October 2010 to visualise the locations of Bank-financed projects and international aid programmes (including food security and hunger eradication) at the sub-national level. In addition, with the entire Bank portfolio now geo-coded, the World Bank and other donors established an Open Aid Partnership to improve coordination and effectiveness of aid worldwide.

»FAO: FAO, of course, embraced e-agriculture long ago to ‘bridge the rural digital divide’. It has a successful programme on early detection and eradication of locust plagues that can devastate crops, based on low-cost satellite imagery. FAO has collaborated with the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and SAGE to form a consortium called Agri-MAPS, which aims to provide a global spatial database based-on selected subnational agricultural statistics.

FAO is establishing GIS guidelines and spatial standards and norms for internal use in order to rationalise, harmonise and advance its GIS and cartographic activities and to support GeoNetwork, which has interactive maps, satellite imagery and related spatial databases to provide a GIS gateway to farmers.

Established in the wake of the world food crisis of the early 1970s, FAO’s Global Information and Early Warning System (GIEWS) remains the leading source of information on food production and food security for every country in the world. In the past 25 years, the system has become a worldwide network which includes 115 governments, 61 NGOs and numerous trade, research and media organisations.

»WFP: The World Food Programme (WFP) uses geoinformation for vulnerability assessments, making use of local expertise and relatively lowcost handheld GPS-devices. Similarly, geoinformation plays a key role in the national comprehensive food security vulnerability assessments that WFP carries out regularly.

»Asian Development Bank: ADB prominently uses geospatial technology for collecting food security information. Food security information includes estimating cultivated area, crop production of paddy, precipitation data, soil moisture, drought index, vegetation index and land cover/land use map. ADB sees remote sensing technology as a cost-effective and efficient tool as it enables periodic observation of a wide area with the ease of integration with maps, says Yusuke Muraki, Space Technology Specialist with the organisation. “In many countries, latest and reliable information about crop growth and agricultural weather conditions are insufficient, or impossible to obtain. Satellite data is often the only available data for such regions,” he adds. ADB’s Global Precipitation Map (GsMAP) offers ‘free’ hourly global rainfall map from various satellite data.

»European Commission: The MARS Unit Mission of the European Commission has been conducting several agriculture-based activities with satellite data. Some of its initiatives include AGRI4CAST, GeoCAP and FOODSEC. The AGRI4CAST system, also known as the MARS Crop Yield Forecasting System, is made by remote sensing and meteorological observations, agro-meteorological modelling (Crop Growth Monitoring System) and statistical analysis tools. The GeoCAP Action addresses the new information needs for policies related to agriculture and regional development, such as cross compliance, farm advisory system, food quality and product origin traceability in Europe. The FOODSEC action was developed in 2001, in cooperation with the MARS STAT action and in the framework of the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security initiative, a system for regional monitoring and forecasting in various parts of the world.

G-players in agriculture

Trimble: From GNSS-powered automated guidance and steering systems, yield monitoring and water management systems to connected farm apps for smartphone, Trimble has solutions for every step of the farming process.

Hexagon: Leica offers solutions in machine control, field automation via guidance systems. Intergraph’s GIS and imagery analysis are refining the process. Z/I’s airborne photogrammetry enables access to sophisticated maps.

DigitalGlobe: Helps quantify crop status, soil conditions and crop change. By quickly locating problem areas and tracking the effectiveness of the solution, AgroWatch can boost field productivity and crop quality.

Astrium: Offers precision agriculture, agricultural business intelligence, and agricultural information system. Its agricultural intelligence combines satellite imagery processing, agronomic and meteorological models for stable and consistent information.

Topcon: Provides agriculture hardware which utilises GPS and GLONASS constellations for higher accuracy. Application control solution provides exact applications of seed, fertilisers etc, while the agronomy solution provides realtime integrated crop monitoring and application.

Blackbridge (previously RapidEye): Offers satellite image products, including RapidEye, the first commercial satellite constellation to include the Red Edge band, which is sensitive to changes in chlorophyll content. Assists in monitoring vegetation health, improve species separation and measuring protein and nitrogen content in biomass.

Hemisphere GPS (aka AgJunction): Provides hardware and software applications for precision agriculture worldwide. Products support advanced farming practices and enables seamless data connectivity.

ProGIS: Offers applications for agriculture, forestry, ecology and rural area management. Included are tools for logistics, community management, utility management, precision farming and virtual farming.

eLEAF: Aims to become the global reference in daily supply of data on water and vegetation of any land surface to support sustainable use of water, increase food production and protect environmental systems.

John Deere: Primarily an agriculture machinery leader, it has solutions for the entire crop cycle. Deere’s agricultural tractors and farm machines are also g-powered. The company is also in crop insurance business.

A two-speed world
Typically, most national and agricultural policies were formulated way before the geospatial revolution took off. Interestingly, one of the first concrete applications of EO is related to agriculture. In the early ’70s NASA officials realised that with satellite images they could predict a bad grain harvest in what was then the Soviet Union, and that the US could have obtained a higher price for the annual grain sales to the USSR. Geospatial information was used to support agricultural policy and only later it was realised that this enabled new and innovative ways towards a more holistic agricultural policy.’

Realising the urgency and profitability, both developed and developing nations have started using geoinformation and advanced technologies like automation and precision farming to improve yields and reduce costs. “There are many factors that influence technology acceptance, from its awareness, reliance, infrastructure availability or even application fit. This clearly varies from region to region, as well as application,” says Simão. He adds that it will be a good idea to identify high-yield farming in emerging and mature markets and then justify more complex solutions.

However, till then the state of agriculture practices is clearly moving at two speeds in the two markets, a fact necessitated by local compulsions and requirements.

»Developed regions: Developed countries such as Canada, US, Australia, New Zealand and those in Europe have been the early adopters of new technologies. While the governments here woke up to evolving technologies and the need for clearcut policies for an agri revolution, large farm sizes and scarcity of labours compelled local farmers to the use of remotely controlled high-tech machines, sensors and EO satellite data.

A very clear example is the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), supported by the European Commission’s Geo- CAP Action, renamed as of January 2008 from the previous ‘MARS PAC’ action, which also indirectly provides assistance to policies linked to it such as the implementation of the Water Framework Directive and the Herbicide & Herbicide Directive. “Among the main examples, one can cite the ‘Control with Remote Sensing’ [which is now legally accepted as an on-the-spot check method] and the development of digital Land Parcel Identification Systems based on ortho imagery,” says Loudjani. GeoCAP also provides recommendation on how to validate and use GNSS devices in the frame of parcel area measurements for the CAP.

GeoCAP also addresses new information needs for policies related to agriculture and regional development, such as cross compliance, farm advisory system, food quality and product origin traceability in the continent. Further, it has a number of ongoing activities (low carbon farming practices, soil carbon preservation and sequestration etc.) to analyse how change in agriculture practices or land protection could help mitigate the impacts of climate change. “Once we reach specific recommendations to mitigate effects, geospatial technologies can be of great importance to implement some of them such as precision farming,” says Philippe Loudjani, Head, GeoCAP, MARS unit, Institute of Environment and Sustainability.

A Helping Hand

Global bodies have pledged to ensure food security in developing countries through g-powered initiatives.

  • The EU annually contributes approximately EUR 500 million for food security in the regions through g-powered technological knowhow
  • Global Monitoring for Food Security, a geo-enabled food security initiative sponsored by ESA and the European Commission, aims to provide EObased services in Africa for information on precipitation, crop yield, soil moisture, vegetation index, etc.
  • USAID’s Famine Early Warning Systems Network, developed mainly for Africa, uses satellite data for precipitation, snow cover and snow water equivalent, vegetation, and yield forecasting information.
  • The ADB and ASEAN+3 is developing the ASEAN Food Security Information System to provide rice-related statistics from satellite data to strengthen food security in the region.
  • Agriculture production has risen by almost 6% in India’s Karnataka following implementation of the Bhoochetana project led by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics in 2008. In 2011, 3 million farm families experienced yield gains of 35-66%.
  • Two centres supported by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research — the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) — have used GIS to predict an overall 10% decline in maize productivity by 2055 (in the US), equivalent to crops losses worth an estimated $2 billion per year.
  • International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas and its partners used a GIS model adapted to data-poor environments to produce a ‘suitability map’ of Eritrea’s Zoba Debub area. The map enabled them to assess the potential of different macro- and micro-catchment water harvesting techniques and indicated that 70% of the area is suitable for at least one of the approaches.
  • The Arab Spatial Development and Food Security Atlas is a start-up initiative by the International Fund of Agricultural Development and the Policies, Markets, and Institutions Program of the Consultative Group of International Agricultural Research Centres .
  • Over the last 20 years, the International Livestock Research Institute has collected and generated an extensive range of spatial data layers.

Europe is also developing precision agriculture databases and standardising data exchange (AgroXML). ISO Bus implementation (and further development) is also in process to overcome compatibility problems.

Land use monitoring has long been one of the main geospatial activities for agricultural policy monitoring and impact measurement. The US Department of Agriculture uses geoinformation to support the national policy on commodities, conservation, agricultural trade, nutrition programmes, rural development, agricultural research, education and extension, forestry, biofuels, sustainable agriculture etc. More specifically, the National Integrated Drought Information System provides forecasts and other information to farmers on droughts, such as the ones that hampered agricultural production in the Western and SouthWestern US in the last few years.

In most of the developed countries, crop canopy sensors are being used to detect light reflectance or laser induced chlorophyll fluorescence. They use sensors as electronic noses, measuring volatile organic compounds produced by fungi, for early and species-specific pest detection. Unmanned ground vehicles and unmanned aerial systems (UAS) are increasingly carrying sensors for field monitoring. In addition, these countries are using autonomous field robots for crop monitoring and crop treatment. For instance, researchers at the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technologies, University of Sydney, developed robotic systems, sensors and intelligent devices for automated agriculture. The robots can move through an orchard gathering data and develop comprehensive in-ground and out-of-ground model. They will be also equipped to perform many agricultural operations such as fertilising, watering, sweeping and mowing. 

The commercial agriculture market has been identified as the largest segment for potential use of UAS by the American Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), which is upbeat about its use for precision application of crop protection agents or nutrients. However, though the use of UAS is subject to country-specific legislations and the US has banned use of commercial UAS flights till 2015, Tamme Van Der Wal, Geomatics Expert at Aerovision, says a number of countries such as Japan are opening up to this new technology. AUVSI also expects a favourable decision from the US government.

»Developing regions: Developing and poorer countries host a majority of the world’s 815 million chronically food-insecure people, according to FAO. Agriculture remains the largest employment sector in these countries, which typically have small farm holdings and lack technological knowhow and funds for modern agriculture. However, the use of satellite data for weather and crop forecast, monitoring soil quality, irrigation sources etc have taken off well even in these countries.

In Asia, using geospatial information for predicting monsoons and extreme events has become a part of the agricultural policies. In Africa, the MESA programme, a cooperation between the African Union and the EU, has a similar aim.

In Brazil, the Canasat project, for establishing and monitoring areas under sugarcane cultivation, is an example of a geo-application supporting national agricultural policy. In fact, Brazil is an exception among the developing countries. The Brazilian Agriculture Research Corporation (EMBRAPA) has made the country a pioneer in precision farming. EMBRAPA has also developed ‘Observation and Monitoring System for Agriculture’ (SOMABRASIL). “The project organises, integrates and makes geospatial databases available on the Web, thus contributing to the understanding of land use and land cover changes.” points out Mateus Batistella, Director, EMBRAPA Satellite Monitoring.

Agriculture has been the thrust area in the remote sensing application programme in India and crop forecasting using remote sensing data by the Indian Space Research Organisation started in the late ’80s, says Dr Shibendu Shankar Ray, Director, Mahalanobis National Crop Forecast Centre. He adds that satellite-based remote sensing data is being used for a manifold applications in agriculture, including crop production forecasting, sustainable agricultural development, irrigation management, site suitability for infrastructure development, watershed development, drought assessment, soil resources mapping and so on. Satellite data also has a great role in many allied fields of agriculture, including potential fishing zone forecast.

Geospatial tools and techniques were used under the National Initiative for Climate Resilient Agriculture programme that was launched in February 2011 for identifying agriculturally vulnerable regions in the country, points out Dr Kaushalya Ramachandran, Principal Scientist, CRIDA.

Recently, the Indian government recommended remote sensing and GPS-based support system for land rejuvenation, while pilot studies are being planned to perfect such techniques for land-use planning and precision farming. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research has launched a $250-million World Bank-funded initiative called the National Agricultural Innovation Project which extensively uses geospatial data for innovative ways of farming.

In Malaysia, the Planning, Information Technology and Communications Division of the Department of Agriculture developed and maintains the GIS base Agriculture Information Portal System (AgrIS GeoPortal). In addition, the Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (MARDI) is pushing precision technology in rice farming.

Vietnam has used geospatial data and technologies for land evaluation on national, regional, provincial and district scales for suitable land-use planning/agricultural development. It has developed applications for explicit assessment of nutrient demands for promoting efficient regional fertiliseruse management; using Webmap for transferring fertiliser recommendation to farmers, traders, fertiliser producers and administrators. It is also using remote sensing and geostatistics for identifying geographic hotspots of humaninduced land degradation and their social-ecological types. “There have been a number of policies to mandate the use of geospatial technology in agriculture for transfer of spatial information in a faster and productive way,” says Nguyen Van Bo, President, Vietnam Academy of Agricultural Sciences. Geospatial technology is used in a big way in rice production, leading to an increase in production by 1 million tonne a year.

Chile has been using remote sensing data for various uses in agriculture for many years now. The National Resources Information Centre (CIREN) has convinced the Ministry of Agriculture to set up a spatial data infrastructure, IDE-Miniagri, discloses Dr Eugenio Gonzalvez Aquilo, Executive Director, CIREN. The Foundation for Agricultural Innovation, a public agency to promote and financially support agricultural research, development and innovation, collaborated with the World Bank in 2009 to prepare a vision document for agriculture in Chile for 2030 which has proposed an extensive usage of modern technology for natural resource and farm management.

Since land is the mainstay of agriculture, more often than not policies in this sector are often aligned to land management issues. For instance, geospatial technology helped in land elevation study and agricultural infrastructure development in Philippines. “The true value of this technology was realised during the World Bank-supported geo-tagging project which helped validate and monitor the area under agriculture,” says Arnel de Mesa, Deputy Programme Director, Mindanao Rural Development Programme, Department of Agriculture. “It helped in eradication of corruption, especially in agricultural tendering process,” he says. The department is now looking at the use of UAVs for airborne monitoring and survey of farms.

Russia’s System of State Land Monitoring is another good example. It comprises two subsystems. “The Federal Geographic Information System Agricultural Lands Atlas was created to provide up-to-date information about agricultural lands to government bodies and local authorities, legal entities and individuals. The Remote Sensing Monitoring System uses RS data for information related to planning, control and management of agricultural lands,” explains Michael Bolsunovsky, First Deputy Director General, Sovzond, which collaborated with the Russian Ministry of Agriculture on the project. Further, for optimum utilisation of available land, several countries like China and Vietnam are converting all small farms into big farms.

The future
The increased attention agriculture is getting from international policy makers — as shown by the decision at the G8 Summit in L’Aquila, Italy to mobilise $20 billion into the sector over the next three years — is timely. Most importantly, access to land and finance is a big challenge for many, which is essential for farming and agricultural entrepreneurship. The world’s 1 billion-plus farmers should be at the centre of new investment strategies, because they are, by far, the largest investors in agriculture, after public and private players. Farmers in 76 low- and middle-income countries invest almost $170 billion a year in their farms — about $150 per farmer, according to FAO estimates. This is a big source that needs to be tapped, but will not be easy given the economics involved.

“We [the developing world] need modern technologies, both software and hardware, and satellite data for bringing innovation in agricultural practices. Cost of technologies is high, especially the cost of remote sensing satellite data,” underlines Nguyen Van Bo of Vietnam.

Hexagon’s Simão thinks aligning the products and applications portfolio to the specific requirements of the emerging markets is the way to address the needs. “This also will enable us to help farmers adopt solutions that can improve their performance in their environment and, consequently, expedite the stages of utilisation of the precision farming technologies in these particular markets,” he points out.

The new buzzword in agriculture is real-time information, but that remains a challenge for farmers in both developed and developing regions, even though the industry is bullish about big business prospect in this new application area. “The agriculture industry is beginning to shift from equipment efficiency to valuing the data, more importantly the information that can be obtained during the operational processes of planting and growing the crop,” says Topcon’s Zahalka.

Bolsunovsky sees Web-based services by subscription and mobile applications as the best solutions for small agricultural producers who can’t pay significant money for ready-to-use multifunctional soft/hardware solutions. Agrees Dr. Bernhard Schmitz, Commercial Manager, ATS Products EAME, AGCO International GmbH: “Mobile and real-time information is definitely an important element of what farmers are looking for.” Dr Roy thinks involving the end-users in GIS application processes, capacity building, developing simpler GIS tools for better use of geospatial technology is required. “We also need to generate outputs in real-time. And for that, we need tools and technologies which are more user-oriented,” he adds.

Whatever the new development, two significant challenges with respect to agricultural policy and geospatial information will have to be addressed. The first is delivery of the information to the target group, be it the policymaker or the farmer, at the right time and in the right format. Usually, the technical aspects of systems are well developed and the knowledge is available to the experts concerned, but communication with officials who have to act on the information and with other target groups presents problems in terms of timing and the way messages are formulated. The second challenge concerns the gap that exists between the local and national/international levels. Usually information is provided separately to these levels, complying with the different requirements, but information at the in-between level that is so important for district or provincial policy making and/or implementation, is lacking. Integration of different levels of information is of key importance to improve strategic decision-making in agricultural policy.