João Soares, Secretariat Expert for Agriculture, Group on Earth Observations


Amongst the many applications of Earth Observation research, agriculture is a sector which stands to make major gains from advancing the spatial and temporal data at our disposal. João Soares, GEO Secretariat expert responsible for Agriculture, outlines the direction this work is taking


Could you first outline the objectives of the Group on Earth Observations (GEO), and the Agriculture Societal Benefit Area (SBA) in particular?

The objective of GEO is to fulfil a vision of a world where decisions and actions are informed by coordinated, comprehensive and sustained Earth Observation (EO). This is being pursued mainly through the added value of co-ordinating existing institutions, organised communities, space agencies, in-situ monitoring agencies, scientific institutions, research centres, universities, modelling centres, technology developers and other groups that deal with one or more aspects of EO. To reach this over arching goal, GEO focuses on capacity development in three dimensions: infrastructure, individuals and institutions. In the field of agriculture, the general goal is to promote the utilisation of Earth observations for advancing sustainable agriculture, aquaculture and fisheries. Key issues include early warning, risk assessment, food security, market efficiency and combating desertification.

Can you provide an example of how agricultural monitoring, modelling and prediction can help us to understand and manage global food supply and demand?

Crop production is a clear predictor of food stocks and price volatility. In a simplified demand-supply model, prices and stocks mirror each other as prices fall in response to increases in production. For example, according to FAO data, world rice production increased from 220 million tons in 1961 to nearly 600 million tons in 2002, while rice prices dropped from US $300 per ton to $170 per ton. One should note that the world’s population doubled during the same period. Hence, improving agricultural monitoring and adding transparency by sharing the information will help stakeholders to set up a management strategy for controlling stocks and making agreements on trading using, for example, the UN mechanisms.

What limitations in global agricultural monitoring systems does GEOSS address?

There are presently a small number of global agricultural monitoring systems in place and a large number of national monitoring capabilities at different stages of development. The practical expertise for monitoring is found in those institutions that have demonstrated an operational capacity for providing such services. In addition, a number of research organisations and institutes are involved in developing basic research and, in some cases, managing the transition from proven methods into the operational domain. However, the potential for further improvement of national and global agricultural monitoring capacity is high, and it raises a few challenges. First, answering key questions, both generic and region-specific, requires co-ordinated research efforts: how can we develop early estimates of crop type and planted area using satellite imagery observations? How can we improve crop yield and production estimates taking into account knowledge about agricultural systems, meteorological information and forecasts, and near real-time satellite observations? How can we optimise the linkage between field observation networks and satellite imagery? How can we quantify uncertainties in estimates and forecasts?

Second, sharing experience and building capacity are major issues. Representatives from the various organisations and institutions interested in enhancing international monitoring capabilities around the world, including the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), comprise the Agricultural Monitoring Community of Practice, which GEO created in 2007 in the framework of its Agriculture SBA. In brief, GEO’s added value is to coordinate the various components of agricultural monitoring systems across the globe to ensure reliable information and transparency for decision making in agriculture management.

What types of agriculture and which parts of the world are expected to be hit the hardest by global climate change? Conversely, are there any crops or regions that will benefit from a changing climate?

This question has no simple answer. For a better understanding of potential climate change impacts one should rely on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2007). Basically, the IPCC scientists confirm that agriculture is highly sensitive to climate variability and weather extremes, such as droughts, floods and severe storms. The forces that shape our climate are also critical to farm productivity. Human activity has already changed atmospheric characteristics such as temperature, rainfall, levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) and ground-level ozone. The scientific community expects such trends to continue. While food production may benefit from a warmer climate, the increased potential for droughts, floods and heat waves will pose challenges for farmers. Additionally, the enduring changes in climate, water supply and soil moisture could make it less feasible to continue crop production in certain regions. The aforementioned report also points to recent studies which indicate that an increased frequency of heat stress, droughts and floods would negatively affect crop yields and livestock beyond the impacts of mean climate change, creating the possibility for surprises and impacts that are larger.  and occur earlier than those predicted using changes in mean variables alone. Then, the near real-time observing capability of satellites makes it even more necessary to assess the crop production variability that is related to the inter-annual variability of extreme events.

Could you describe the coarse, moderate and fine spatial-resolution satellite observations for which the GEO Agricultural Monitoring Task has provided guidelines to improve the coverage of agricultural monitoring?

There is still a lack of consensus on how to classify spatial resolution. Here I am referring to coarse, moderate and fine spatial resolution as 250-400 m, 10-60 m and less than 10 m, respectively, for optical sensors. The coarse resolution sensors include NASA’s Terra and Acqua (MODIS) and ESA’s ENVISAT (MERIS); the moderate resolution includes cameras onboard the Landsat series, Spot satellites, India’s Resourcesat satellites, the China-Brazil satellites, along with many others; and the fine class is made up of commercial satellites. There are also SAR satellites that are often used to monitor irrigated rice, such as the Canadian Radarsat, ENVISAT and the Japanese JAXA JERS.

GEO’s agricultural monitoring task confirms that vegetation indices are the overall highest-ranked observation priority followed by crop area, disturbances, precipitation and evapotranspiration. Important food crops have short cycles (around 100 days), and the planting calendars across the globe vary according to the seasons. For these reasons, a combination of different spatial resolutions is necessary; the coarse satellites have a repeat cycle of a few days, such that the Vegetation Indices that ultimately translate into primary productivity can be measured a few times during the cycle, considering the cloud-cover risk. Moderate-resolution satellites are mandatory for identifying crop types and crop area, while high-resolution imagery can also help to tell classes apart and reveal plant health and disturbances. The fine-resolution imagery is hardly available, as there are compromises in the capacity of revisiting the same location as the sensors only see a swath of around 20 km with a revisit capability of longer than three months.

What do you hope to achieve through the Joint Experiments on Crops and Agricultural Monitoring (JECAM)?

JECAM provides a platform for building the capacity to conduct standardised crop monitoring across the globe, as it will cover the many relevant crop types and calendars. JECAM is expected to be the highest quality agriculture monitoring network. It will gather experts from the agriculture community to participate in workshops, field work, hands-on methodology development, the setting up of satellite data collection strategies and help to identify critical EO priorities. JECAM will also provide the initial framework within which the space agencies can improve their data policies and develop their satellite acquisition plans.

How is Canada’s innovative Crop Condition Assessment Program (CCAP) improving the monitoring of crops across the country? How does this technology relate to the work and goals of GEO?

Canada’s innovative Crop Condition Assessment Program, run by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, is a very good example of how coarse-resolution satellites can help in assessing crop conditions on a weekly basis, relying on a combination of 1 km and 250 m spatial resolutions. Their information package produces timely, quantitative and objective information on crop and pasture conditions from the regional to the township level. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada is also leading GEO’s JECAM set of experiments and will bring their experience to the broader GEO agriculture community. Obviously, not every big crop-producing country is as well organised in terms of the database at the census/production-unit level from where key information such as crop type and calendars are available and routinely updated. Thus the Canadian experience will certainly help with setting up strategies on crop assessment for the other GEO members.

GEOSS Agriculture follows a 10-year implementation plan from 2005 to 2015. How have you seen the focus of the organisation evolving to date? What goals will you focus on as you reach the tail-end of this implementation plan?

In a best-efforts organisation like GEO it is not always easy to match the work plan to the implementation plan and tie the deliverables of the different tasks to the strategic targets. GEO is evaluated by an external high-level team on a continuous basis. This team has highlighted this point and indicated the need for future work plans to realign the task goals to the targets of the 10-year Implementation Plan. A new structure proposal for the 2012-15 period has been tabled and this was approved by the GEO Plenary meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, in November 2011. The 2015 strategic target for the Agriculture SBA is to improve the utilisation of EO and to expand application capabilities to advance sustainable agriculture, aquaculture, fisheries and forestry in areas including early warning, risk assessment, food security, market efficiency, and, as appropriate, combating desertification. Our focus for 2015 is on reaching the following outcomes:

• Increased use of EO capabilities and supporting applications systems in order to produce timely, objective, reliable, and transparent agricultural and forest statistics and information at the national and regional level

• Improved agricultural risk assessment and operational weather/climate forecasting systems for early warning and food security

• Effective early warning of famine leading to more timely mobilisation of an international response in food aid

• Expanded monitoring of agricultural land use change, through periodic regional and global assessments

• Development of quantitative measurements of global and regional desertification

• Increased capacity building through targeted workshops and joint multi-institution research teams

• Improved collaboration and coordination on the use and applications of EO for fisheries, aquaculture, forestry and land cover mapping

What have been some of the project’s major achievements to date?

There are two main achievements to date. The first one was the establishment of the GEO Agriculture community of practice (GEO AG CoP) in 2007. It took a few years to bring about the necessary leadership for the mission of pursuing GEO’s vision for agriculture. But now the CoP counts more than 300 experts across the globe and it is growing. This is the very nature of GEO, which is to build on existing initiatives, coordinating among them with the Implementation Plan targets in mind. The second comes from the success of the first, which is the recognition of the Ministries of Agriculture of the G20 that GEO is the most appropriate intergovernmental institutional body for carrying out the task of improving crop-production monitoring across the globe using EO tools, demonstrated by including the initiative as part of their Action Plan on Food Price Volatility and Agriculture, launched in Paris in June, then confirmed by the G20 head of States in Cannes later in November.

How important is collaboration across the nine SBAs of GEOSS? How have you benefited from the work undertaken in some of the other areas?

GEO established three Implementation boards to guide the execution of the 10-Year Plan. The boards are organised around Architecture, Societal Benefit Areas and Institutions and development (Capacity Building). These branches cut across, and are relevant to, each of the issue-specific Social Benefit Areas. Agriculture does cut across all societal benefit areas, but more specifically those of water, weather, climate, energy and ecosystems. The community follows them closely and benefits from the work being carried out on the relevant SBA tasks. Crop types and calendars are climate related, and weather impacts and water supplies modulate crop productions. The complexity and interlinking nature of Agriculture and the other SBAs and the management systems in place, with voluntary best-effort contributions, make it difficult for GEO and external bodies to rigorously evaluate the integrity of the cross benefits of its SBAs. Nevertheless, each organised piece of the whole structure such as the AG CoP observed and benefits from the developments of the other areas.