Thought for Food

Thought for Food


Around 805 million people in the world suffer from chronic undernourishment. That’s about one in nine people of the 7.3 billion global population. Almost all the hungry people — 791 million — live in developing countries. In other words, 13.5% of the population of developing countries doesn’t get enough to eat on a daily basis. Meanwhile, there are 11 million undernourished people in the developed world.

That is the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) data for you. This number is likely to increase as the population grows to 9 billion by 2050. To feed the world, food production must double, even as the land under agriculture gets drastically reduced owing to fast-paced development and urbanization. Then there are other worrisome factors, such as, unpredictable rains, increased droughts, natural disasters, high input prices and depletion of natural resources. In such a scenario, food security becomes an increasingly difficult challenge in the agricultural context.

Role of agriculture

The current ongoing volatility in commodity prices, recurring food crises around the world and unabated malnutrition in the developing world bring to light the vulnerability of the global food system more than ever. Like in other businesses, population growth and urbanization are the primary driving factors for agriculture too. Add climate change, depleting water resources and degrading soil quality, and we have a lethal cocktail in hand. Feeding the global population of 9.1 billion in 2050 would require raising food production by around 70% between 2007 and 2050, says FAO. With 69% of the global population expected to be urban by 2050, the land under agriculture is shrinking at a faster rate.

Agriculture plays the most important role in providing food security. Accurate agricultural information is a prerequisite in understanding sustainable agricultural development and food security. “Whether it is through increasing.spatial precision at a sub-field level, or increasing temporal precision at a global level, geospatial technology is like the ‘eye’ that surveys the global status of crop production at all times and delivers that message across a diverse set of stakeholders,” says Susana Crespo, Agriculture Industry Manager at Esri.

Understanding spatial variability is the principal challenge for policymakers to target appropriate and effective interventions. Geospatial technology plays a critical role in determining the right seed for the right location, and the right management practices to optimize production, while minimizing inputs, Crespo adds.

Geospatial information supplies analysts, governments and aid organizations with insights on agricultural lands, cultivated areas, crop health and crop diversity. “Mapping, of course, is the basis and GIS allows to combine different types of layers for farmers and governments,” avers Tamme van der Wal, Partner, AeroVision B.V.

Further, accurate geoinformation helps realize required food production and ensures those foods are diverse and nutritious, and that they reach the targeted communities. For instance, while reviewing the food security framework review policy for Sabah, Malaysia, besides taking the GIS map and the local statistics, the department also used strategic environmental assessment to scope the different components. “To our surprise, we learnt that the food basket we think is essential for all the people is actually different for the rural and urban population,” says Doria Tai Yun Tyng, Principal Assistant Director, Lands and Surveys Department, Sabah. The team also realised that urban poverty was more severe than rural poverty because of the high rate of migration from rural to urban areas.

The ever-increasing global population and increased demand for food and industrial needs has put tremendous pressure on the planet’s resources, such as, land and water.

Because agriculture is the fundamental driver of environmental change and food production, agriculture-related data can provide valuable insights into sustainability issues, including land use, biodiversity, and food security, for both researchers and applied users, claims SEDAC, NASA’s Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center. Without accurate crop inventories, global development actors will always be reacting to crises instead of anticipating and preventing them.

Geoinformation for farming

The launch of the Earth Resources Technology Satellite in 1972 (later renamed Landsat) ushered in the modern era of global land observations and monitoring, and since then remote sensing has been an integral part of agriculture and food security programs of governments and agencies around the world. There has been a fast progress in application of remotely sensed data to the mapping and measurement of the Earth’s characteristics. The last 35 years have seen amazing improvements in sensor technologies, incredible advances in computing, and impressive innovations in analytical procedures.

Rapid technological advancements in earth observation capabilities, coupled with advances in IT, cloud computing, GNSS, mobile technologies and the smartphone revolution, have created a unique opportunity for implementing smarter solutions for the agriculture sector globally.

World Food Programme

The World Food Programme of the United Nations uses geospatial data and technologies for assessing crop vulnerability. WFP also runs GeoNode, a Web application for creating and sharing geospatial data and maps designed for non-GIS experts. (See Page 36).

Of late, multilateral agencies, such as United Nations, FAO, World Bank and Asian Development Bank (ADB) and others have taken up a more focussed approach toward the use of spatial technologies and information for ensuring food security.

The UN organisations are promoting Global Geospatial Information Management (GGIM), points out van der Wal. “The thought is that land ownership or tenure, etc., require a good land administration, which is not only the basis for more responsible and sustainable farming practices, but also for access to loans and investments. The UK Ordnance Survey and the Dutch Cadastre are promoting that a lot.

“There are a lot of initiatives that not only do some kind of ‘wallto- wall’ mapping of agricultural productivity using moderate-resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer and other satellite data, but also measure rainfall — like the ‘old’ ARTEMIS program of FAO,” he adds.

Geospatial information has always been there (soil maps, vegetation maps, etc.), but, in recent years, the ability to take that geo-referenced information in to orchards or fields have given us the ability to make real-time decisions that have drastically increased the sustainability and profitability of the fruit industry globally, points out C.H. Fraenkel, CEO of Agrimotion, a company working in the area of sustainable solutions for soil management and fruit production.

The Western Cape Department of Agriculture (South Africa) has pushed the geospatial initiative through various projects. “The one that we use a lot is FruitLook. It has provided fruit farmers with the ability to spatially monitor their orchards on a weekly basis,” Fraenkel reveals. The project monitors various parameters like NDVI, increase in biomass, evaporation deficits, etc., and the results have ensured reductions in over-irrigation, over-fertilizing, etc. The same initiative needs be put in place in the rest of South Africa as well. “If it makes a difference for smaller farmers, you can imagine that the benefit to commercial farmers will be exponential. This will not only ensure food security, but will also secure and protect valuable resources, such as, soil and water, for generations to come.”

How G-tech can help

Enormous efforts are underway throughout the world to gather data and information on crops, range, land, livestock and other related agricultural resources and their production mechanisms. Such information or data are often used in many global and regional scale models to assess status or trends at the landscape level or even larger units. However, at these scales, such data may fail to reflect ground realities that are often very different from information or data collected at larger scales, and therefore, fail to capture the complex nature of agro-ecosystems. This is especially the case in the developing world, where landholdings are fragmented, and production systems are highly diverse and complex. The complexity ranges from factors such as crops that are produced, soils, land quality, water availability, elevation, weather, poverty, infrastructure, migration, local policies on land tenure, market access, conflict, etc.

At the macro level, accurate location information equips governments about the volume and location of various crops across vast agricultural areas. This helps the governments to anticipate harvests. Accordingly, appropriate trade policies can be selected and areas of surplus produce can be mobilized to supply areas of deficit, preventing food shortages and hunger. Private sector insurance, re-insurance, commodity traders, all would benefit from monthly snapshots of the status of global crop production. Willis Re and Thomson Reuters are two potential sources of demand for GEOGLAM data. Besides, there are a number of other areas where geospatial technologies play a key role.