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In March 1993, South African photographer Kevin Carter captured an iconic image near the village of Ayod in southern Sudan that made the world weep.

Through the camera lens, a vulture watched as an emaciated child languished in the dirt on her way to a feeding station—an photograph that became a metaphor for famine and despair in Africa.

Color photo of stressed maize in Zambia
An inspection of maize in southern Zambia in March 2019 finds plants that have been significantly stressed by a dry spell lasting from mid-February to late March in that region. (Credit: Curt Reynolds, USDA FEWS NET. Public domain.)

While hunger remains a haunting visage across the planet today, the global community has not sat idly by. Just a few years before Carter’s photograph appeared, U.S. government science agencies, national government ministries, international agencies, and NGOs had begun combining remotely sensed images with field observations to project where famine and food insecurity might occur. Those projections enabled government decision-makers and relief agencies to begin dealing with these humanitarian crises.

The U.S Geological Survey (USGS) and Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center have been right in the middle of all that. USGS EROS is part of a multi-agency collaboration created by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in 1985 called the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET), which provides early warning and analysis on acute food insecurity across many parts of the planet.

Here’s an example of FEWS NET’s value. In 2011, it became part of an monthly Early Warning Crop Monitor report that evolved out of a meeting of G-20 heads of state concerned about global food price hikes in 2007-08 and 2010.

The Early Warning Crop Monitor came out of two significant initiatives borne of that concern:

  • The Agricultural Market Information System (AMIS) called for the monitoring of crop conditions for markets within major producing countries;
  • And the Global Agricultural Geo-monitoring (GEOGLAM) initiative, which coordinated satellite-monitoring observation systems in different food insecure regions of the world to enhance crop production projections and weather forecasting data.

The Crop Monitor report relies on remote sensing data and field reports generated by FEWS NET and other international, regional, and national organizations that are keeping tabs on crop conditions within countries at risk of food insecurity. Once a month, representatives of those organizations log in to an online platform hosted by the University of Maryland and enter their findings. The current condition of crops is given “favorable” or “watch” status. Some crops can receive other designations as well, such as poor or failure, depending on their condition as the growing season is ending.

Color photo of Zambian farmer
A farmer in southern Zambia works in a maize field in March 2019. (Credit: Tamuka Magadzire, USGS FEWS NET. Public domain.)

Sometimes discrepancies arise in countries where reports overlap. The differences result in a discrepancy map that gets hashed out in a teleconference at the end of each month. Maybe someone had information that others didn’t. Maybe an interpretation was incorrect. Perhaps somebody just hit the wrong button as they entered their report. In all instances, the discrepancies are resolved.

In the end, those reports become invaluable to agencies like USAID’s Food for Peace Office, which is the U.S. Government's largest provider of overseas food assistance. Jim Verdin is the team leader at Food for Peace for FEWS NET. He and his staff manage interagency agreements with USGS, NASA, NOAA, USDA and several other big contracts to monitor and report on actual or potential acute food insecurity.

Verdin said Crop Monitor reports are making a difference, noting that in Fiscal Year 2017, Food for Peace provided 3 million metric tons of food assistance worth $3.6 billion to help 60 million people in 53 countries. A lot of hungry children were saved from becoming the next wrenching metaphor.

The diversity of inputs into the Crop Monitor reports—coming from such organizations as FEWS NET, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization and World Food Programme, the Joint Research Centre in Europe, regional organizations in Africa, even national ministries for certain Asian and African countries—casts the project in a very favorable light, Verdin said.

That diversity “is important for the people who are using the information because then they know it’s been really thoroughly cross-checked and represents a consensus among all those organizations,” he said. “People can more readily accept it at face value and devote their thinking to, ‘Well, what do we do about these conditions’ as opposed to questioning it or second-guessing it.”

That said, specific information provided by FEWS NET is often the same as what’s adopted in the final Crop Monitor reports, if perhaps one category different in a few cases, Verdin said. FEWS NET relies on a number of remotely sensed datasets, such as Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI), as well as its own Climate Hazard Group Infrared Precipitation with Stations (CHIRPS) dataset, which gives experts specializing in early warning of drought and famine a high-resolution look at rainfall in near real time across the globe.

But the real value of FEWS NET to the Crop Monitor report is as much in its interpretation and assessment of crop conditions as it is in the data, said Mike Budde, a FEWS NET geographer based at EROS. Part of that assessment involves looking at conditions that are driving crop conditions—a lack of rainfall, damage from pests, natural disasters, even ongoing conflicts.

“The consensus-building part of the Crop Monitor reports is really the part of it that’s somewhat unique,” Budde said. “We have regional scientists in the field we rely on. Other organization have their field representatives, too. Through consensus, we arrive at these reports that help make decisions on food aid and where it’s distributed.”

Certainly, the reports get used by organizations that help put them together, Verdin said. The Japanese, European Union, United Kingdom and others all have food assistance programs, he said. The Crop Monitor reports also get used by global humanitarian organizations like CARE and Action Against Hunger.

In fact, the Crop Monitor reports are so widely respected that regional organizations and individual countries have started their own crop monitor efforts using the same kind of classification scale and cartography, Verdin said.

Image of hand touching failed crops
A field inspection of maize in southern Zambia finds finds a crop adversely affected by a dry spell that extended from mid-February to late March 2019. (Credit: Tamuka Magadzire, USGS FEWS NET. Public domain.)

“In Uganda, there’s one good success story where GEOGLAM folks have gotten quotes from government officials stating how they have saved many millions of dollars by having an early indication of poor crop outcome in parts of their country, so they were able to act sooner and be more effective,” Verdin said.

At Food for Peace, there’s a food assistance outlook briefing that happens monthly, he said, adding, “and very often, almost every month, one or two maps from the Crop Monitor end up in that presentation to help tell the story.”

It’s a good story in a world that still knows hunger all too well, Budde and Verdin said. A story of collaboration and compromise. One, too, that at least holds the promise of a happier ending.

 “It’s a good example of satellite remote sensing getting put to use to solve a practical monitoring problem,” Verdin said. “It’s applied science for the greater good, as well as just a good example of international cooperation to solve a problem that matters to the whole global community.”

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