Monitoring Food and Famine

by Matt Ball on June 8, 2008

Keeping an eye of food production on a continental and global scale is of great importance, particularly in this time of global food shortage. The complex phenomenon of food security requires inputs and analysis from many sectors that begins with a remotely-sensed image. Hyperspectral imagery provides the large-scale picture, with the imagery analyzed to determine the amount and types of crops and their relative health. The imagery is coupled with on-the-ground observations such as the amount of food in local markets, the foods that are supplied locally, what foods are imported and what people can afford.

The detailed analysis of these images, maps and data combine to form the Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET), which is administered by the U.S. Aid Agency for International Development (USAID), with help from NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture along with international and regional partners.

FEWS NET operates 23 regional offices, with 17 in various regions of Africa as well as country offices in Afghanistan, Haiti and Guatemala. The field offices study imagery and local conditions to act as an early warning system for famine conditions. The offices also help to plan for large-scale contingencies and responses should shortages become alarming.

With current international economic pressures translating into huge price increases for food, the relevancy of this work has become of critical importance. The average price of rice has tripled since early 2006, and wheat, corn and soybean prices have doubled. These pressures have caused food riots in some regions, and more than 100 million people are in jeopardy from famine.

Anyone that’s interested can freely sign up for the e-mail warnings that are produced by this network. The messages go out to local governments, U.N agencies, missions, embassies and various non-governmental organizations. Warnings range from a five-month window to one or two months. In the increasingly critical global balance between food and famine, these warnings could ultimately mean the difference between peace and large scale loss of life and civil unrest.

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