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ESA Living Planet Symposium: Tackling Food Security from Space


From monitoring air quality, through coastal zones and biodiversity, climate and weather patterns, all the way to soils and food security- satellites can see it all. 

Last week in Milan, Italy, the European Space Agency (ESA) held the Living Planet Scientific Symposium. Scientists, researchers and environmental professionals from around the globe, gathered to share their latest findings, based on satellite-derived data. Thousands of people were present, discussing a diverse range of topics- environmental monitoring, water quality, water scarcity, sustainability and sustainable development goals, food security, urban pollution, deforestation, natural disasters- to name a few.

What brought these all together was the availability of satellite imagery. Now more than ever before, technology is able to provide the means to scientists, to conduct ground breaking research. Unlike 20 years ago, the issue here is not “how to gather more data”. In fact, it is the exact opposite- how best to handle so much data. 

I will focus here on the topic that are particularly interesting to me- food security. Of course, to see what else was on, you can follow the link here and browse through the abstracts. Below is also a video, containing the highlights.

Food security, especially in disaster-prone areas, is a major issue. Huge areas across Africa, South America and Asia, are experiencing the full force of climate change. As a result, farmers can no longer apply their usual practices. You can imagine, a farmer in Africa for example, who expects the long rains to start in September, can very much be surprised when this does not happen. Mismanagement of the soil resources enhances the issue.

As a result, seeds are lost, fertilizers are applied incorrectly, and eventually, entire season of produce has failed. As most farmers depend on rain for irrigation, there is not much they can do but hope that the ever-so-needed showers will come. In addition, crops are more likely to be affected by pests and diseases. 

Satellite imagery can provide the needed information for them to adjust in time. Of course, it is unreasonable to expect that a farmer can do something with those data. This is where the scientific community and experts come in. We have to translate and digest the information for the farmers, making sure that the information they receive is something that they can use immediately.

This precise issue is something that actually creates the gap in “real life”. Scientists develop technologies that can solve the problems. However, these rarely reach the end-users. What is worse, even if they do, the adoption of new technology very slow. As a result, developers cannot penetrate the markets fast enough, and withdraw, while farmers are still not able to reach the optimal and necessary yields.

During one of the panel discussions on the topic of food security, I raised the issue of technological adoption. It was a little disappointing, although not unexpected, that the guys from ESA said:  “we provide the technological means to scientists, who then have to find ways to bring the science to the end-user”.

They are right in a way, of course. There is not much they can do about it. However, this attitude does not close the gap between scientists and those, who directly benefit from scientific research. 

I am a true believer in applied science. For me, a piece of research has to have a direct impact.

I guess my message here is that we need to close the gap between “science” and “the real world”. NGO’s and foundations should be involved more heavily in capacity building and “translating” the scientific findings. It is important that we accelerate the adoption of technology if we are to tackle the environmental issues, threatening millions of lives.

Image (c) ESA-Living Planet/ Mila Luleva

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