Using satellite technology to assess nutritional content in crops

In a world where malnutrition affects more than two billion people, scientists are turning to satellite technology to monitor the nutritional content of staple crops. The European Space Agency (ESA) has funded research that demonstrates how the Copernicus Sentinel-2 mission and the Italian Prisma mission can be used to assess the quality of crops such as rice, soya, and wheat. This breakthrough could help farmers take necessary steps to enhance the nutritional value of their crops during the growth process.

Micronutrient deficiency, which includes the lack of vital elements like calcium and potassium, is a significant problem for over 25% of the global population. This form of malnutrition particularly affects those who rely on crop-based diets and have limited access to nutrient-rich food. Often referred to as “hidden hunger,” this condition occurs when individuals consume enough calories but do not receive adequate essential nutrients and vitamins. The consequences of hidden hunger can be severe, including impaired physical and mental development, increased vulnerability to diseases, and even premature death. With the world’s population growing and the climate crisis exacerbating food security concerns, ensuring the nutritional quality of basic crops is becoming increasingly crucial.

Traditionally, measuring nutrient concentration in crops involved collecting grain samples during harvest and analyzing them in laboratories. However, these methods are both time-consuming and costly, making it impractical to implement on a large scale. Moreover, since nutrients are only measured after harvest, farmers cannot intervene effectively with fertilizers or other agricultural practices while the crops are still growing. To overcome these limitations, scientists from the University of Twente in the Netherlands and the National Research Council of Italy explored the potential of using satellites to monitor crop nutrients over large areas. This approach would provide enough time for farmers to intervene with fertilizers or other practices before harvesting.

While most satellite optical sensors do not capture crop nutritional content accurately, the hyperspectral instrument on the Italian Space Agency’s Prisma mission and the multispectral instrument on the Copernicus Sentinel-2 mission are sensitive to features related to nutritional content. The research team selected a test site in the Po Valley in Italy and focused on four crops: corn, rice, soybean, and wheat. By comparing signals in the satellite data related to nutrients like phosphorus, magnesium, zinc, and potassium with lab measurements, they were able to assess the nutritional content. The team’s findings were supported by an ESA Earth Observation Science for Society project called “HyNutri – Sensing Hidden Hunger with Sentinel-2 and Hyperspectral.” The results of their research have been published in the journal “Remote Sensing of the Environment.”

Mariana Belgiu from the University of Twente expressed optimism about the initial attempts to estimate and predict the concentration of macro- and micronutrients in staple crops using Prisma and Sentinel-2. She highlighted that while some nutrients, such as potassium, phosphorous, magnesium, and iron, showed promising results, further investigation is needed for other nutrients. To address this, a follow-on project named EO4Nutri has been launched with the support of ESA’s Science for Society program.

Espen Volden from ESA emphasized the potential impact of this research. He hopes that it will enable farmers to intervene early in the growing season to enhance the nutrient quality of grains or allow governments and food security organizations to plan activities that ensure sufficient nutrients for vulnerable populations. That is particularly relevant for countries in Africa where macro- and micronutrient deficiency is more prevalent. Volden also mentioned the development of a new satellite mission called CHIME, which will carry a hyperspectral instrument suitable for determining crop nutrient content. This mission, part of Europe’s Copernicus program, holds promise in alleviating hidden hunger.

By harnessing satellite technology, scientists are revolutionizing the way we monitor crop nutrition and tackle hidden hunger. This breakthrough has the potential to transform farming practices, enhance food security, and improve the nutritional well-being of millions around the world. With further research and advancements in satellite missions, a future where no one suffers from malnutrition may be within reach.