Agricultural awakening

Richard Tipper examines how earth-observing technologies could rewrite the future of farming

Recent advances in the deployment of earth-observing satellite (EO) systems by space agencies and commercial players have massively increased the available data on terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. 

Governments and businesses have invested billions of dollars constructing, launching and operating constellations on the premise that society or paying customers will obtain sufficient benefit to justify the continued operation and development of these technologies. As a result, the frequency, quality, resolution and diversity of free or affordable data now available is unprecedented. 

The potential applications of EO technologies are broad – from monitoring environmental change at various scales, response to natural disasters and measurement of economic and social change; to improved management of forests, water resources, coasts and fisheries. One major sector set to benefit from the adoption of EO is agriculture.

Including pasture, agriculture is the main human land use, comprising almost 40% of the global land surface. The base for a large part of the global economy, it is, of course, vital for food security. Global demand for calories is expected to double by 2050 before stabilising, while large areas of prime agricultural land are expected to decline in productivity as a result of climate change, soil degradation and water resource depletion.

Within the agricultural sector as a whole, there are a number of potential segments for EO applications, including: 

(i) Broad-scale monitoring of changes to agricultural production and land use. This is mainly of interest to government departments concerned with food security and the rural economy.

(ii) Information about the interface between agriculture and natural ecosystems, which can be used to monitor natural capital. More specific data can check compliance of farms with environmental regulations, or inform on payment for services such as maintenance of landscape features, erosion prevention and carbon sequestration.

(iii) Commercial data about crops and varieties, leading to production estimations useful to aggregators, suppliers, traders and insurers. 

(iv) Risk, suitability and change information. This will be particularly valuable for investors in agricultural holdings and could help stabilise markets.

(v) Precise information for farmers. EO data can inform on water and agrochemical requirements, and the optimal timing of operations, for example.

Each of these will require a careful combination of contextual information, subject matter expertise and end-user requirements to generate valuable information from EO-derived data. 

Ecometrica’s strategy is to unlock the value in EO data by combining it with contextual information held by businesses, governments and researchers. The potential value of EO applications to agriculture is immense.

A 5% improvement in global agricultural productivity from the application of EO technologies would deliver a return of approximately $250bn per year. 

But considerable effort will be needed to finesse solutions before the wide range of stakeholders in this diverse and complex sector – from governments, civil society and farmers to financiers and suppliers – start reaping the benefits.  

Dr Richard Tipper is executive chairman of downstream space and satellite data mapping group Ecometrica 


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