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Using digital systems to improve food security. Alan Whitelaw

If digital infrastructure is about delivering better outcomes, then nowhere is this more important than in support of agriculture and the food industry.

Food security is a massive global issue, with impacts on health, global supply chains and political stability, while food production has to rise by an estimated 70% to keep up with a rising global population expected to hit 9bn by 2050.

And no staple food is more important than rice, which accounts for one fifth of all calories consumed worldwide. Mott MacDonald provided the cost-benefit analysis for RIICE (Remote sensing-based Information and Insurance for Crops in Emerging Economies), a project which combines satellite technology with data analytics to monitor rice production.

The project partners included the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI); Sarmap, a specialist Earth observation service company; insurer Allianz Re; the Swiss Agency for Development & Cooperation; and Germany’s international development agency GIZ.

Phase I of the project (2012-2015) conducted work in the Philippines, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam. RIICE aims to provide regional governments with accurate monitoring of a vital crop, and to enable them to access financial insurance for yield losses, setting a precedent for similar food security projects in the future.

Monitoring rice crop growth

Before you can take steps to improve rice crop security, you need to be able to measure the crop accurately.

RIICE monitors rice crop growth using data sourced from various satellites including those owned by the European Space Agency (ESA), in particular ENVISAT ASAR and Sentinel-1. The satellites perform radar-based imaging accurate to a resolution ranging from 20m to 3m. By covering the same geographical area regularly throughout the growing season, changes to crop coverage can be monitored over time.

Rice crops reflect radar signals differently from other vegetation, while the reflectivity of the rice crops themselves differs according to the growing stage of the plants. This allows analysis of satellite data to determine not just rice crop coverage but also growth rates. At the same time, rice crops are monitored at selected sites on the ground, as a means of calibrating satellite data and to gather field level information on crop growth.

Making use of remote sensing data

The remote sensing data gathered by satellite is processed by Sarmap, a specialist satellite technology company based in Switzerland. The company decodes the data which is then integrated with meteorological and environmental data within a rice crop growth model called ORYZA, developed by IRRI to provide yield estimates and forecasts. The results are uploaded to a web-based GIS application and presented to users as map-based representations.

This provides governments and project partners with rice maps which show where rice is grown together with forecasts of how the crop will develop. This allows them to:

  • Estimate actual rice yields: The satellite data, together with weather, crop management and soil information allows governments to determine the extent of the current rice crop and can be used to estimate biomass.
  • Forecast future yields: Data analysis allows projections of rice yields to be made mid-season, allowing governments to adapt economic policies accordingly, importing more rice if a shortfall is imminent or allowing higher exports if rice yields are in surplus.
  • Assess disaster damage: Analysis of satellite imagery before and after extreme weather events such as flooding or droughts allows governments and relief agencies to identify and better co-ordinate efforts in the wake of a natural catastrophe.
  • Access insurance schemes: By using geo-referenced data, it is possible to ascertain yield estimates and potential loss of yield, allowing insurance products to be structured to take the risk away from smallholders.

Multiply data streams to further increase food security

The results of RIICE have been positive, bringing efficiency to rice crop monitoring and allowing regional governments to base economic policy on accurate forecasts of rice yields.

In a wider context, connecting the data from remote sensing and other space systems to adjacent data streams can bring further efficiency gains to the food supply system:

  • Utilise meteorological data to observe impacts of climate change: Our ability to analyse climatic conditions is advancing rapidly. Analysing these changes over longer periods, for example multi annual time series of RIICE type data, can help us to understand climate impacts on rice crop growth, which will help improve climate adaptation strategies.
  • Use with asset management systems to optimise water management: Water supply and drainage are vital for rice growth and the infrastructure needed for this requires considerable management and investment. Remote sensing information can help to optimise the management of water supply at a range of scales and also help prioritise much needed investment in upgrades. GPS located status observations can be combined with the remote sensing information in geographic information systems (GIS) to provide a powerful decision support system.

The success of RIICE is further proof of the fact that engineering solutions are increasingly dependent on analysing data to prevent problems, instead of the traditional engineering approach which analyses physical evidence after problems have already occurred.

As well as rolling out similar and related projects to bring security to other crops, joining up our data sources will unlock new efficiencies which will make the food production industry – already creaking under the weight of global demand – go that bit further.

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