MARS is a well-known name in the global food industry – not to mention in space – but in European terms, it has nothing to do with chocolate bars or planets. It stands for Monitoring Agricultural Resources and refers to the scheme set up in 1993 by the European Commission's agriculture and rural development department together with the Joint Research Centre, the Commission's scientific research department.
The aim of the MARS project is to use the remote sensor technology of satellites to monitor crops, predict yields, track the weather patterns that might affect farmers (and the broader impact of climate change as a whole) and to track agricultural biodiversity, among others. All of which are neatly summarised in regular MARS Bulletins providing a wealth of information for farmers, traders and analysts on what to expect in Europe and beyond.
Predicting crop yields and helping farmers with a heads-up about expected weather conditions are only part of the picture, however. The satellite technology used for MARS is increasingly helping European policy makers craft their responses to the global challenge of climate change, which has implications far wider than the droughts, floods and other extreme weather conditions that affect farmers.
The first half of 2017 saw many European countries affected by these adverse climatic conditions, from droughts to heavy rainfalls, depending on the region. This had a profound impact on crops, and put many farmers under extreme financial pressure. The EU's common agricultural policy is there to help in such circumstances, with each national government able to grant farmers in difficulty an advance on their annual payment if the circumstances justify it. This was the case for 15 different EU countries this year, and the data provided by MARS - illustrating the climatic conditions in the first part of the year and their impact on crops – was a vital component in this decision-making process. It allowed the Commission to react very quickly to the calls from national governments to be allowed to support their farmers, and for the vital payments to be made to support farmers in need.
On top of responding to crises, the data from the satellites can also help in the evaluation of policies. The common agricultural policy is designed to support farmers in their business, but it is not simply money for nothing – farmers have to comply with a variety of strict conditions, linked largely to measures designed to reduce the impact of farming on the environment, biodiversity and natural resources, but also to ensure proper animal and plant health and land use.
With over 22 million people working in the agricultural sector in the EU, keeping track of whether these conditions are adequately met – and whether they are having the desired effect in protecting the environment and biodiversity – is of course a major challenge. Satellite monitoring, coupled with sophisticated software and expert knowledge, can help assess the impact of the rules – and help ensure that future rules can respond even more effectively to the evolving challenge of climate change and biodiversity loss.
Satellite technology contributes to market transparency
Farming is a complex profession, with many factors (such as the weather) making it difficult to predict and keeping farmers in a
constant state of uncertainty. But satellites can also help in this regard as well, by helping analysts have a clearer picture of how the overall agricultural sector is likely to develop and giving farmers a clearer idea of what to expect.
By providing data on yield forecasts, highlighting potential areas of concern and giving an overview of the development of the main crops, MARS offers greater market transparency. Published in the bulletin, this information is available to anyone, including operators at every level of the food supply chain. For certain market sectors, the information is also packaged into convenient dashboards for a comprehensive overview of prices and production.
It may be a little surprising to learn that the same basic technology that allows Jack Bauer and James Bond to track their targets – or you to find the quickest way from A to B using just your phone – has been used for 25 years already to help European farmers produce their crops – and thus your food – more effectively and efficiently. It's a service that is constantly evolving, and that will continue to play a significant role in European farming for many years to come. The latest development is the MARS Explorer, which sounds like one of those robots that trundles across the surface of the red planet analysing soil samples but is in fact a new e-service enabling web users worldwide to view weather and crop conditions in near real time across the whole of the EU.
The major development compared to the previous services is that this will make available a much larger set of data at a significantly higher frequency – a fitting evolution for an 'old' technology in today's hyper-connected world.