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Figure 1 Drought-enforced fallow land in California

Agriculture experts now believe that a key component that can help increase food security and reduce global poverty is the productivity of smallholder farmers. Thus, they have been looking for a way to achieve these dual goals. While smallholders may potentially play an important role in the future, measuring their current progress is still largely impossible.

A global view of the agricultural statistics shows that the figures may be unreliable, especially those originating from developing countries. The problem is that those are the nations that need productivity improvements the most. Without having systematic data that can be accessed to gauge the situation at either subnational or field scale, no advances can be made in those places.

What’s more is that the lack of reliable data on agriculture that creates a bottleneck around research. Without the research, no changes can be implemented, or policy introduced. This creates huge gaps in overall productivity all around the world.

Earth Observation – An Alternate and Viable Approach

Visiting the cultivation fields all over the globe is a huge undertaking. It will require manpower, funding, and intra-government collaboration. That’s why remote sensing seems potentially a great way of understanding the agricultural systems everywhere. Since satellite imagery can document and record the situation, combining it with the results from research may provide us insights on these systems at different scales.

So, what can the data from satellites do for agriculture? How will it usher in an age of smart or precision agriculture? Below, we outline only three ways in which that can happen:

Digitization in Farming

The differences in productivity or yield gaps are crucial data in this process. Measuring the magnitude and the types of these lags will require yield mapping. The latter is yet another tool that comes to us courtesy of Earth observation via satellites.

There is merit to the information that comes our way through the conduction of field experiments and simulation models. Sure, there is! But these approaches fall short when we want to scale them up to understand crop yield gaps over entire regions and over extended durations. By combining those tools with satellite data, agriculturists can measure crop yields in farmers’ fields anywhere. They can produce yield maps that are up to meeting both the spatial and temporal scaling challenges that crop yield gaps can pose.

Some applications of yield mapping include:

  1. Even when an area is inundated with government efforts and NGO projects to improve crop yield, they often aren’t effective. One of the main reasons why this is so is due to the huge expense that will incur if the data from those programs is collected and analyzed. Earth observation is a relatively inexpensive way of estimating crop yield at the field scale. The outcome: better impact through fine-tuned targeting of agricultural interventions
  2. In many cases, there is no management data that can suggest why yield gaps form in the first place. There have been hypotheses about their sources, but the incredible heterogeneity between various fields makes it difficult for researchers to come to a sound conclusion. With satellite imagery, there will be more transparency.

If we can increase productivity and yield on field-scale, there may be an influx of investments and insurance products that are based on profitability or crop yield/area.

Input Management

Farmers and land managers are naturally thinking of ways of increasing crop yields while saving money. However, doing this becomes even more challenging for them when they also have to worry about reducing environmental pollution.

For instance, overuse of fertilizers is a common occurrence on many farms. Since the smallholders are unable to pinpoint the exact location that would benefit from these growth-boosting chemicals, they have to inundate the whole area with them. This poses two problems:

  1. Obviously, the farmers will spend more money when they apply fertilizers over a massive area as opposed to the location in need of them.
  2. The runoff from nitrogen and phosphate brings with it substantial environmental repercussions. When it mixes with groundwater, it pollutes the supply. If it flows into the ocean, the runoff gives rise to vast seasonal algal blooms.

And fertilizers are just one example where farmers can use assistance in minimizing the environmental cost of farming. Irrigation surplus can cause waterlogging and salinity while planting the wrong crops in the wrong soil – or repeatedly -- can create other issues. Data collected by satellites can provide important clues to plant health, soil moisture, and plant cover. It can be monitored from space and used to simultaneously cut costs and increase crop yields.

Farm Management Recording and Decision-Making Support

Making both smart farming and sustainable agriculture widespread realities requires an availability of data. Precision agriculture is sustainable and cost-effective. The data that comes to the farmers via satellites can make it easy for them to make informed decisions. They would have a better idea about resource allocation with improved ecological and economic outputs as outcomes.

This kind of innovative farming is a branch of data analysis and mathematics. With the images readily available to growers and cultivators, they will be apprised of the state of a number of variables, including soil composition and climate change. When analyzed properly, big data about such variations can help the key players choose the right farming practices to implement.

Informed decision-making and support are possible via diverse data analysis techniques. The cost of labor, for instance, can be tightened if the farmers have site-specific data in the form of weather forecasts and probability mapping of disasters and diseases. More accurate yield projections may be achieved in this manner. Smallholders may be able to track the fertility of their farmland by comparing satellite images. The data will drive the yield potential of any given land upward.

In short, Earth observation can ensure the hurdles preventing the worldwide adoption and implementation of smart farming are removed. The uninterrupted application of smart farming practices has the potential of globally increasing food security and reducing poverty.