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When Farmland Becomes the Front Line, Satellite Data and Analysis Can Fight Hunger

When Farmland Becomes the Front Line, Satellite Data and Analysis Can Fight Hunger

It is difficult to predict exactly how events like extreme weather, pandemics, conflict, and politics will disrupt global food systems and cause people to go hungry. The destabilizing impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic (inflation, employment crises, supply chain disruptions, higher prices for fertilizer and fuel), exacerbated by climate disruptions and war, has led 200 million more people to experience higher levels of food insecurity than prepandemic levels. Today, 1 in 10 people around the world are food insecure, but forecasting how global events will affect insecurity remains a challenge.

Timely, transparent, actionable crop production data aggregated from local to global levels is necessary to inform farmers, policymakers, and humanitarian organizations making decisions about food production and distribution. Most countries publish crop information that has been collected through ground-based surveys of farmers’ production levels, acreage, and yields. Governments and international organizations also track supply chain disruptions, trade flows, food stocks, and market data on consumption. These data are then used to anticipate how supply and demand will affect prices and, by extension, food insecurity and social unrest.

Satellite-based information can provide this evidence quickly and reliably. At NASA Harvest, NASA’s Global Food Security and Agriculture Consortium, one of our main aims is to use satellite-based information to fill gaps in the agriculture information ecosystem. Since the start of the Russia–Ukraine conflict, we have been using satellite imagery to estimate the impact of the war on Ukraine’s agricultural lands at the request of the Ministry of Agrarian Policy and Food of Ukraine. Our work demonstrates how effective this approach can be for delivering critical and timely insights for decisionmakers.

Our analysis found that Russia occupied approximately 22% of Ukraine’s cropland. While many observers speculated that in 2022 production would be significantly reduced—with the winter crop harvest (mainly wheat and barley) and the spring crop planting (largely corn and sunflower) 30% to 50% lower than previous years—the satellite data revealed a different story. We found that close to 90% of the wheat crop had been harvested, and that the large majority of available croplands were planted with spring crops. Planting and harvesting losses were concentrated along the front line. We estimate the amount of abandoned cropland in Ukraine in 2023 is equivalent to about 7.5% of total cropland in the country. Still, that’s a lot of land; had this land been planted, it could have produced enough to feed 25 million people for one year.

Our work in Ukraine underscores the potential for satellite data and analysis to fill serious gaps in agricultural information during food system shocks and when ground access is disrupted. In our experience, despite a large and growing demand for such analysis, there is a notable deficit in institutional capacity to deliver the kinds of rapid, satellite-driven assessments necessary to guide policy and humanitarian decisions. Many national and international organizations use remote sensing technologies for agricultural assessments, but a dedicated, state-of-the-art agricultural analysis facility does not exist. The need for such standing capacity has been recognized by multiple US government agencies, as well as by other national governments, United Nations organizations, humanitarian organizations, and policy frameworks such as AMIS. The demand for such analyses is currently unmet.

We propose establishing a dedicated facility that can be activated whenever events threaten agricultural production, distribution, or information transparency. The facility should focus on rapid, satellite-driven agricultural assessment in support of decision making. It should be connected to ongoing efforts in this space, including the Group on Earth Observations Global Agricultural Monitoring (or GEOGLAM) initiative, an open community that leverages international agricultural remote sensing capacity developed across the globe. And it should be a hub where stakeholders, including national government and humanitarian agencies, can guide analysis requests.


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Photo Credit: gettyimages-awakr10

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