Monitoring agriculture for sustainability
Producing more food to feed a growing global population will require more intensive and extensive farming over the coming decades. Ensuring this can be achieved in a sustainable way is the goal of EU-funded researchers developing methods and tools to monitor and map agricultural areas and crop production.
The SIGMA project, involving 22 partners in 16 countries from Africa, America, Asia and Europe, is creating tools and methods that will enable farmers, researchers and other stakeholders to gain an unprecedented long-term and worldwide perspective on how land is being used, what is being farmed, how yields and production are evolving, and how agricultural activities are impacting the environment.
Already of critical importance, this data will be even more essential in the future amid predictions that global agricultural productivity will need to increase by at least 70% to feed a world population estimated to reach almost 10 billion by 2050.
“There are two ways to increase agricultural production: expand the amount of farmland or farm existing farmland more intensely,” explains SIGMA project manager Sven Gilliams of VITO in Belgium. “Both of those options have important effects on the environment and can prove unsustainable in the long term.”
While several Earth observation-based crop monitoring systems are currently in use, they focus mostly on short-term agricultural forecasts and harvest predictions. The SIGMA team wanted to look beyond the current growing season to be able to envision the impact of changing land use and agricultural activities years and decades into the future.
Scaling up from regional to global
The system they are developing builds on the past 20 years of earth-observation data, current satellite imagery and in-situ information from dozens of test sites around the world where models and methods can be tested and validated on a small-scale. Everything from climate and terrain to irrigation and the use of fertilisers is taken into account.
“The results from the test sites can be scaled up by grouping agricultural areas into agro-ecological zones – areas with similar climate conditions, where farming is carried out in a similar way,” Gilliams says. “This information can then be extrapolated and combined with earth-observation data to develop a global picture of pluri-annual changes such as shifts in cultivation practises, or the expansion or abandonment of agricultural land.”
On the one hand, the data promises to contribute to the development of more sustainable farming practices worldwide. Farmers and other stakeholders would be able to identify successful strategies in one region of the world that could be applied in other areas with similar climate and geographical conditions.
On the other, a global overview would provide a clearer and more accurate picture of yields and production that should minimise spikes in food prices, Gilliams adds. This information could help avoid future crises – such as when wheat prices rose sharply in 2012 following droughts in Russia, or in 2008 during the global food crisis.
The Agricultural Market Information System (AMIS), managed by the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, was set up precisely as a result of the 2008 crisis to collect and supply information on agricultural markets worldwide.
It also obtains data from the G20 Global Agricultural Geo-Monitoring (GEO-GLAM) initiative of the Group on Earth Observations (GEO), to which SIGMA will provide its tools, data and methods.
“Involvement in GEO-GLAM will ensure the long-term use of the systems we are developing. We are also carrying out capacity-building activities with agricultural ministries and scientific institutes around the world to share our methodologies and best-practice,” Gilliams says. “By the time the project ends in 2017, all stakeholders will have access to methods, maps and monitoring tools, as well as models of the environmental impact of agricultural activities and cultivation practices.”