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Stimulating Innovation for Global Monitoring of Agriculture and its impact on the Environment: SIGMA

VITO, together with a consortium of European research institutes, SMEs, and key international partners in agricultural monitoring, started an EC FP7 funded project on global agricultural monitoring to support GEO and GEOGLAM. Remote sensing, along with in situ observations and expert knowledge is used to improve current monitoring systems including an assessment of the long-term effects of agricultural practices on the environment.

Executive Summary

In 2007-2008 the global food crisis pushed millions of people into hunger and extreme poverty. This crisis had multiple causes but above all demonstrated the possible effect of local shocks on price volatility of global agricultural markets. As a result of that, the G20 established the AMIS and GEOGLAM initiatives. AMIS, the Agricultural Market Information System which is coordinated by FAO, collects and provides information on agricultural markets on the G20+7 main economy and producers of wheat, maize, rice and soybean. GEOGLAM (Global Agriculture Monitoring), managed by the Group on Earth Observations (GEO), uses remote sensing technologies to increase reliability and timeliness on agricultural production as an input to AMIS.

SIGMA is one of the major contributions of the European Commission to GEO and specifically to GEOGLAM and it is financed through the EC framework research programme (FP7). GEOGLAM has 6 major components focused on different aspects of a “Global Systems of Systems” for Agriculture as envisaged by GEO.
SIGMA is focused on innovation with the main aim to produce datasets and methods that result in improvement of current early warning systems at global, regional and local level. In the first place it contributes to the JECAM (Joint Experiment on Crop Area Monitoring) initiative which is the GEOGLAM R&D component.
Practical project outputs, such as an improved crop mask, maps identifying areas with the potential for agricultural intensification, consistent remote sensing datasets and methods that allow to identify crop land changes, are meant to be directly usable within the GEOGLAM community.

The project is further focused on the development of a specific methodology to better assess the effects of agriculture on the environment, which is commonly not addressed in agricultural monitoring systems. Lastly, SIGMA provides a platform to enable experts world-wide to meet and exchange experience from different areas in the world. As such, and along with dedicated capacity building activities, we hope that SIGMA will also make a significant contribution to information transparency and capacity at global level and national level. The SIGMA partnership consists of 22 key expert institutes in agricultural monitoring from 17 different countries, it is led by VITO (Belgium). The partnership includes a number of European SME’s which enables the better engagement of European EO companies in global agricultural monitoring.

The partners of SIGMA are: FAO (UN organization), JRC (European Commission), Alterra (Netherlands), EFTAS (Germany), CIRAD (France), GeoVille (Austria), ITC (Netherlands), GeoSAS (Ethiopia), IIASA (Austria), RCMRD (Kenya), DEIMOS (Spain), UCL (Belgium) – SARMAP (Switzerland), INTA (Argentina), SRI (Ukraine), GISAT ( Czech Republic), IKI RAN (Russia), SarVision (Netherlands), AGRHYMET (Niger), NMSC (China), RADI (China).

Background project

Global population has grown from about 2.5 billion in 1950 to more than 7 billion in 2012 and is projected to reach more than 9 billion by 2050. To achieve food for all, global food production will need to grow by 70% and up to 100% in developing countries. As a result, human activity and impact on the Earth’s natural resources will increase and continue to lead to competition for land and natural resources. Expansion of urban centres, intensification of agriculture, unsustainable land practices and deforestation among others may lead to short term gains but probably they will have severe effects on the longer term. Increasing food production can only take place through intensification of current agricultural practices or expansion of area under cultivation. Sustainable land management practices along with efficient use of inputs and resources are crucial to guarantee food production on the longer term. FAO’s State of the Land and Water Report (2011) states that the largest contribution to increase agricultural output will most likely come from intensification of production on existing agricultural land. This will require widespread adoption of sustainable land management practices and more efficient use of irrigation water through enhanced flexibility, reliability and timing of irrigation water delivery. In order to achieve this, a thorough understanding of agricultural systems is essential.

Issue & needs

Food production needs to be assured for future generations through sustainable cultivation practices. Sustainable intensification of agriculture requires, among others, production systems which ensure environmental health in the long term. Both the OECD (2008) and the EC (COM 508) have defined a set of environmental indicators for agriculture which concern policy, land use, water, air, biodiversity, farm management and agricultural inputs. These indicators cover broad domains and covering them all at a global scale would be simply unfeasible. As such, and given the priorities of the call, the research will be focused on indicators which can be addressed through the combination of remote sensing and in situ observations, and which can actively contribute to a “global” agricultural monitoring system in particular in relation to: Agricultural Expansion, with an assessment of crop land dynamics, and agricultural Intensification, with an assessment of potential and actual shifts in cultivation practises.

Proposed solution

Current remote sensing based agricultural monitoring systems focus mostly on “short term” assessments of agriculture in terms of productivity forecasts and estimates and do not take into account (or only to a limited extent) the environmental considerations, which inevitably reduces agricultural productivity and impacts agricultural sustainability in the long term.
Therefore, SIGMA’s main challenge is to develop innovative methods and indicators to monitor and assess progress towards “sustainable agriculture”, focussed on the assessment of longer term impact of agricultural dynamics on the environment and vice versa.

In short, SIGMA intends to develop methods and products that will enable us to answer the following sustainability questions:

  • How and where do changes in crop land distribution affect other ecosystems?
  • How and where do changes in cropping systems and cultivation practices affect environmental and sustainability options?
  • How can we ensure integration of developed methods in global monitoring systems?

Industry perspective

There are three main activities in SIGMA. Firstly the project partners will identify and map crop land in terms of change (shrinking and expansion), which will provide an insight in potential for agricultural expansion. Secondly, potential for agricultural intensification will be studied, identifying crop yield gaps (difference between actual and potential yield) and changes in agricultural systems (single to multiple cropping, irrigated versus not irrigated). Methods to characterize environmental effects of both expansion and intensification will be studied in a third activity. These key components are further supported through capacity building, to engage and train a wider community, data coordination, management and outreach activities. Global and regional data sets (based on low resolution data and models) are used to analyze crop land change and some well-known land degradation issues. This global approach is then ‘verified’ at regional level and number of sites at specific locations, potentially providing insight into the validity of such global and regional approaches. Specific developments at local scale can further lead to significant improvements in methodology.

Industry plays an important role in the project, taking care of advanced image processing and the development of specific tools and analysis protocols that allow to facilitate the work of agricultural analysts.

Cost justification

The project has been Kicked-off in November 2013, when experts from the consortium gathered at VITO in Belgium. Subsequent to that an international food security meeting, under the auspices of the EC, GEOGLAM and the Secure World Foundation was held, discussion progress made in developing a “system of systems” for agricultural monitoring. The current activities focus on acquiring the necessary remote sensing and field datasets for further analysis.

SIGMA will significantly contribute to the needed sustainable expansion / intensification of global agriculture. Through the products that will be develop in the SIGMA project, methodologies and models will give agricultural experts a faster a more accurate access to the global production of agricultural commodities and their environmental impacts.

Return of investment

The project has only recently started so full outcomes are not yet available. Currently remote sensing data over the different test sites is being gathered and methodologies are being tested and fine-tuned.