A Different Kind of Space Force

How NASA satellite data is harnessed to combat food insecurity

(l-r) Sarah Brennan (NASA), Carlee McClellan (Navajo National Water Management Branch, Mary Mitkish (NASA), Lawrence Friedl (NASA) (photo by Jessi Cape)

Did you know there are 24 satellites orbiting the earth? And did you know the data they collect is public domain? The first Landsat satellite launched in 1972.

“Science, when applied to decision-making, gets really interesting,” said moderator Lawrence Friedl, one of three panelists from NASA, alongside Carl McClellan of the Navajo Nation Water Management Branch that partners with NASA, speaking on March 11 on the subject of NASA satellite footage’s role in examining food insecurity.

To set the topic’s stage, Mary Mitkish of the NASA Harvest Consortium tells the story of “The Great Grain Robbery'' as a use case for why analyzing agricultural data can prevent price-gouging, predict grain prices and production patterns, calm market volatility, help resource managers make informed decisions – and ultimately improve food security. Where large data dumps fail, storytelling can bridge the gap. Living with increasing effects of climate change is a real-time reality, but understanding accurate data about food-production factors like drought, unusual precipitation, snow melt rates, water resource availability, heat waves, flooding, soil and crop health, plant cover, and even civil unrest can mitigate some of the chaos and tragedy. “The definition of resilience is being prepared for different situations,” said Sarah Brennan.

The entire panel offered brilliant insights into how and why these tools are essential to progress, and McClellan’s personal anecdotes about growing up without modern amenities like electricity and running water lent much-needed perspective. NASA’s satellite data collection is not just futuristic nerd stuff. It’s proven valuable to understanding human needs, in real-time. Ukraine, for example, is one of the world’s top grain producers and the ongoing war puts global food security, as well as local citizens, at high risk. Knowing how and where aid can be delivered reduces harm on all fronts. Similarly, when the country of Togo experienced an unprecedented drought, officials on the ground needed info about which farmers were most in need of aid, and where their land was located so it could be distributed. NASA provided the analyzed data in 10 days.

Above all, agreed the panel, collaboration is the key to transforming data into action, and on behalf of NASA they implored the public, by way of this SXSW audience, to reach out. The more partnerships with programs of every size, shape, and focus – across both the U.S. and the globe – the better for everyone. From entry-level training to civil participation programs, NASA is actively drumming up interest for the greater good.

In true SXSW fashion, Mitkish of NASA Harvest announced that NASA has added a second space-meets-ag-data consortium, NASA Acres. The new initiative will “unite physical, social, and economic scientists with leaders in agriculture from public and private sectors. They will have the shared mission of bringing NASA data, science, and tools down-to-Earth for the benefit of the many people working to feed the nation.” A space program dedicated to helping farmers and ranchers here on Earth? Surely that can convince the non-believers.

Tackling Food Insecurity with NASA Satellite Data

Food Track

Sat 11, 10am, Austin Marriott Downtown

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