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Space technology to improve farmer livelihoods across the drylands

15/04/19

In this Q&A scientists from Egypt’s National Authority for Remote Sensing and Space Sciences, the European Commission’s Joint Research Center, and ICARDA discuss a new collaboration utilizing remote sensing and Earth observation for sustainable agricultural development.

A new experimental tripartite collaboration between researchers from ICARDA, Egypt’s National Authority for Remote Sensing & Space Sciences (NARSS), and the European Commission’s Joint Research Center (EC JRC) is taking shape, aiming to optimize the use of Earth Observation Systems (EOS) for agricultural research. The collaboration builds on a joint vision targeting the enhanced exchange of data and remote sensing tools, creating new links between space scientists, resource poor farmers, and agro-ecosystem researchers in Egypt and across the dry areas.

The new initiative was discussed during a recent technical meeting in Cairo, Egypt, when researchers from the three participating institutions discussed actual cases and tangible ways of using remote sensing to better monitor agricultural dynamics, yield gaps, land degradation, irrigation water usage, and other environmental indicators, which could help to inform the development of climate change adaptation strategies.

The collaboration will benefit from data contributed by EC JRC, gathered from a number of European Union agencies and member states, including Copernicus, a European program that builds capacity to utilize Earth Observation technology. The data will inform the design and development of new research approaches and tools that can be applied on the ground, initially in Egypt where scarce water resources and rapid land degradation threaten the agricultural sector and the viability of rural livelihoods.

In 2016, ICARDA and NARSS signed a general Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), which laid the ground for collaboration, enhancing the development of science-based agricultural innovations. With the involvement of EC JRC, the exchange of data and knowledge and the pursuit of synergies in the field of ‘precision agriculture’ will be strengthened even further.

In the following Q&A participating researchers from EC JRC, NARSS, and ICARDA provide their perspectives and hopes for the new partnership.

Q&A

1) Why were you interested in joining a technical meeting with scientists from EC JRC, NARSS, and ICARDA?

Felix Rembold, Crop Monitoring Expert, EC JRC:

“I visited Egypt to participate in the 12th International Conference of the African Association of Remote Sensing of the Environment, co-organized by NARSS, and responded to an invitation from ICARDA for a technical meeting following the conference. As a researcher in agricultural monitoring with remote sensing I found it highly relevant to meet experts from NARSS and ICARDA who are involved in research for agricultural intensification in drylands, and are developing methods for improved agricultural monitoring and management with the use of EOS.”

Mohamed AbdelRahman, Researcher, Division of Environmental Studies and Land Use, NARSS:

“I am a researcher in the area of pedology who studies soils in their natural environment using remote sensing. Since ICARDA is involved in research for agricultural intensification in dryland areas, I decided to attend the meeting to find out about new methods for improved agricultural monitoring and management and to understand how Earth observation is being used by ICARDA and EC JRC.”

Chandrashekhar Biradar, Principal Scientist and head of ICARDA’s Geoinformatics Unit:

“ICARDA has been working with several national partners in the region, and advanced research centers. Using space applications for sustainable agricultural development has in recent years become the norm, particularly in regions that lack data, which includes Egypt and many regions across the dry areas. Sound application requires strong partnerships and coordinated efforts to address data gaps. Active collaborations between national partners like NARSS, Egypt’s Agricultural Research Center (ARC), and advanced research centers such as EC JRC will help to improve the development of new innovations.”  

2) What are the potential benefits of enhanced collaboration between EC JRC, NARSS, and ICARDA researchers?

Felix Rembold:

“High resolution satellite imagery is becoming more widely available, researchers are increasingly being asked to work with Big Data, and the task of ensuring such data is useful for agricultural research is becoming more and more complex. It is therefore important that we exchange information about research questions, technologies, and methods. Although digital communication makes such exchanges easier, institutional mandates and programs offer opportunities for sustained exchanges of information and collaborations that enhance understanding of complex problems and favor integrated research approaches. In the case of agricultural research in Egypt, and dry lands in general, research teams from NARSS, EC JRC, and ICARDA are addressing similar problems. Exchanging information and discussing methods and tools can increase our resource efficiency through the integration of ground data and research methodologies, the elimination of duplication in the development of tools, and shared approaches.”

Mohamed AbdelRahman:

“The collaboration will provide knowledge about recent tools which have been developed for high-resolution satellite images and the implementation of Big Data analysis in the field of agriculture.”

Chandrashekhar Biradar:

“Recent advances in Earth observation, Open Access platforms, Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Information and Communication Technologies, Cloud Computing Platforms, along with smartphone enabled Citizen Science, make Geo Big-Data analytics smarter, interoperable, and more useful than ever before for agricultural applications. This has opened tremendous opportunities to address existing data gaps at multiple levels for demand-driven ecological interventions across scales, including space, time, and types of interventions. Researchers at EC JRC, NARSS, and ICARDA are working on a number of issues related to agriculture and natural resource management which harvest data from space technology. The collaboration may help researchers exchange technical expertise, data, tools, and information so they can improve the integration of Big Data-driven digital augmentation for accelerated sustainable development.” 

3) Are there specific areas where the tripartite collaboration has particular relevance and importance?

Felix Rembold:

“EC JRC is currently not involved in crop monitoring at the local scale in Egypt, but can contribute to methodological discussions and research, for example detecting productivity trends in the Nile Delta or exploring and monitoring the implementation of sustainable agricultural intensification options. EC JRC is actively exploiting the use of Earth observation data - in particular data generated by the Copernicus program to improve agricultural monitoring and management. There are clear commonalities with ICARDA and NARSS research priorities.”

Mohamed AbdelRahman:

“NARSS is working in the area of crop monitoring and yield prediction at the local scale in Egypt, which means we could benefit from improved agricultural monitoring and management approaches. We can also see commonalities with some of the research priorities of ICARDA and EC JRC.”

Chandrashekhar Biradar:

“The digitization of agroecosystems, especially building ‘spatial farm typologies’, as a result of recent advances in geo-tagging and agro-tagging, in conjunction with Earth observation, has become an essential entry point for sustainable developmental initiatives – whether in regards to plant genetics for breeding improved varieties, crop diversification and intensification, the efficient use of water and farm inputs, agronomic practices, or ecosystem services. Such activities over long-term planning horizons require strong collaborations at multiple scales. This is where I see mutual benefits - by joining hands with national partners and advanced research centers like NARSS and EC JRC.”

4) Which activities do you think are the most urgent for the three parties to engage in, and why?

Felix Rembold:

“Agricultural productivity in drylands is constrained by major challenges. In Egypt, agriculture depends on irrigation water availability and soil fertility, and both are threatened by rapid urban expansion, land degradation, and increasing food demand coupled with changing dietary preferences. Research by the three parties needs to monitor agricultural productivity and propose sustainable management options for integrated agricultural intensification. Lessons learned by the EC JRC in agricultural monitoring, and its experience providing support to the Common Agricultural Policy since the late 1980s, needs to be shared with ICARDA and NARSS. Furthermore, data sets and methods need to be made fully available, there needs to be direct contact and discussions among researchers aimed at joint problem solving, and we need to package research into joint products and publications.”

Mohamed AbdelRahman:

“[Further to the previous answer] Also, given irrigation water shortages in Egypt, we can collaborate on crop water requirements.”

Chandrashekhar Biradar, Principal Scientist and head of ICARDA’s Geoinformatics Unit:

“I fully echo what Felix Rembold and Mohamed AbdelRahman have stated. The scarcity of water resources, as well as scarcity in terms of technological innovations for better water resource management, needs to be urgently addressed. Recent advances in Geo Big Data- and ICT-based analytics have become smarter, interoperable, and more useful, helping to enhance spatially-informed precision decisions. However, in terms of farming systems typologies, we still need to address gaps in resource-use efficiency. We also need strong collective efforts to build these typologies for timely decision making and policies. GeoAgro-based eco-smart farming systems have significant potential in Egypt and water-scarce regions generally.” 

5) How do you see the EC JRC, NARSS and ICARDA collaboration developing in the future?

Felix Rembold:

“The meeting hosted by ICARDA was an initial opportunity for an exchange of information, technical discussions, and the identification of common interests. This needs to be followed by concrete action points and a work plan. If this technical collaboration is successful in terms of the production of visible outputs, it can pave the way towards a more formalized institutional collaboration between the three organizations.”

Mohamed AbdelRahman:

“We would like to thank ICARDA for inviting NARSS to participate in this important meeting. We already have an existing MoU with ICARDA, and we certainly look forward to joint collaborations in the area of Big Data and ICT applications.”

Chandrashekhar Biradar:

“It is such a great pleasure to have important and strategic partners like EC JRC and NARSS on board for coordinated efforts and technical cooperation. This first meeting has already resulted in a joint session on agricultural mapping and modelling at the European Space Agency’s 2019 Living Planet Symposium. We look forward to working together on spatial farm typologies, Geo-Big Data, and ICT-based analytics for on-farm application.” 

More information about the three institutions:

EC JRC: https://ec.europa.eu/info/departments/joint-research-centre_en

NARSS: http://www.narss.sci.eg/

ICARDA’s Geoinformatics Unit: http://geoagro.icarda.org/

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