Satellite Expert Takes the High Road to Help Improve Agriculture

Dr. Alyssa Whitcraft takes an extremely high view when it comes to finding ways to sustainably feed the world’s 7.67 billion and growing population.

The deputy director and program manager for NASA Harvest, Whitcraft uses satellite imagery to collect data on agricultural areas worldwide, monitoring croplands, predicting crop yields, and issuing climate hazard warnings. NASA Harvest’s goal is to use this high-flying data to help decision makers (from farmers to political leaders) worldwide make better decisions about food security and production.

In a recent 4Front podcast, Whitcraft explained how the Harvest Program began and how it could help the world produce more food while improving the environment.

A native of Santa Barbara, California, Whitcraft knows more than a little about growing things: Her parents started one of the first wineries in southern California. But in college, she gravitated toward the field of remote sensing, with a particular focus on monitoring ecosystems. After graduating from the University of California Los Angeles with dual degrees in International Development Studies and Geography, her graduate work took her to the University of Maryland’s (UMD’s) Geographical Sciences Department, which is considered a leader in the satellite-based remote sensing.

She was there in 2011, a year that saw major droughts worldwide that drove up food prices and their volatility. In response, the G20 international forum launched the Group on Earth Observations Global Agricultural Monitoring (GEOGLAM) to use satellite data to provide early, transparent information on crop condition and production outlooks. The work was demanding, but she nevertheless found the time to complete her NASA-funded Ph.D. in 2014, and has been working in the GEOGLAM Programme Secretariat ever since.

Although it’s known primarily for its space exploration, NASA has been investing in satellite technologies for agricultural research since 1972. In 2017, the administration issued a solicitation to develop a cohesive satellite-based agricultural monitoring program. Whitcraft, along with fellow UMD Professors and GEOGLAM collaborators Inbal Becker-Reshef and Christopher Justice, jumped at the chance, and they were awarded the program.

Three years later, the program has grown significantly and has drawn on additional funding to explore sustainable and regenerative agriculture. A big area of focus today is using farming practices to trap airborne carbon in soil. In the United States, sequestration pulled down 16.6 million metric tons of carbon into cropland in 2018, according to a February report issued by Farm Bureau, an independent volunteer organization representing farmers and ranchers.

Those efforts may get a boost from the Biden administration, which has proposed funneling $30 billion in USDA Commodity Credit Corp. farm aid funding into a program that would, among other things, pay farmers to implement carbon-sequestration practices.

That development is encouraging, but “we need some more research,” Whitcraft observes, to both better understand the processes mediating carbon sequestration and soil health in agriculture, as well as to develop robust and repeatable Monitoring, Reporting, and Verification (MRV) schema. Satellite remote sensing offers valuable tools to measure the world’s carbon dynamics, “so we’re trying to develop these common yardsticks across sectors—public, private—and have a pre-competitive forum for folks to come together and mutually move the needle on understanding what we need to do to make agriculture [a net benefit] to the climate.”

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