By Isaac Hopkins
Dr. Molly E. Brown, a research scientist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, has been providing information and expertise for the Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET) since 2000. FEWS NET provides agencies, including the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which funds the network, with information that attempts to forecast where famines and food insecurity are likely to occur. Traditionally, this data is gathered largely on-the-ground, but such feedback can be unreliable, contradictory, and politically motivated. Satellite imagery may be a key to improving predictions and directing food where it is most needed.
A recent map of the Horn of Africa from FEWS NET, used to evaluate and predict food insecurity. Satellite imagery helps shape these maps. (Photo credit: fews.net)
“Global observations are going to become increasingly important,” Dr. Brown says, in order to continue reducing food insecurity, especially as global markets become ever more volatile and powerful. The use of satellite data, most often looking for indicators of vegetation health or rainfall patterns, may increasingly provide decision makers with those planet-wide observations.
Satellite imagery’s greatest strength is its objectivity. “We don’t know who’s producing what where,” says Dr. Brown, but we don’t need to with this system. Satellite imagery can tell us where long-term conditions are most conducive to a food system collapse, and the power of a clear, fact-based map can convince decision makers to send food aid to the right places.
In order to be effective, FEWS NET must combine its raw data with local context, such as local growing patterns or local policies, in order to make reliable recommendations. According to Dr. Brown, “When you have people selling their production assets,” such as livestock and seeds, that is when aid needs to be available, and not just when you have a dry year. Famines are incredibly complex phenomena, but satellite imagery can be a powerful, innovative tool to target those in the greatest need.
For more on FEWS NET and the famine in Somalia, read Early warnings not enough to stop famine in Somalia.
Where else have you seen space-age technology combine with local understanding to address food security issues? Tell us in the comments!
Isaac Hopkins is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project