Satellites help forecast crop yield

September 18, 2006

Brussels, 15 Sep 2006

Through the analysis European satellite imagery, researches estimate 2006 crop yields to be lower than last year. Scientists have determined that the total area affected by the prevailing drought and heat waves is growing.

It appears Europe's farmers will have to ready themselves for a lighter harvest for a second year in a row. The Joint Research Centre (JRC) of the European Commission released updated assessments of European crop yield figures for 2006 indicating a probable decrease in production. This year's total cereal production is expected to reap 9 million tonnes, a 3.6% drop compared to last year's figures.

According to the report produced by The Institute for the Protection and the Security of the Citizen of the JRC, those countries most affected by the lower than expected yield are Germany, Poland, UK, France and Italy. In terms of individual crops, Poland and Italy stand to lose the most with a 13.4% loss for soft wheat and 25.3% loss for sugar beets respectively.. The only crop projected to do better this year than last is durum wheat, with a potential increase of 2%.

These results come from the Commission-funded Crop and Yield Monitoring Action also known as MARS STAT (Monitoring Agriculture with Remote Sensing techniques) project. MARS STAT activities are now part of the AGRIFISH Unit of the Joint Research Centre (JRC) of the Commission, after being merged with the FISHREG action in June 2004.

The MARS-STAT project originated in 1988 as a way to apply developing satellite technologies to crop areas and yields. Throughout the years it has expanded to provide data concerning efficient and effective management of the EU's Common Agriculture Policy (CAP), (MARS-PAC Action), foreign aid programs (MARS-FOOD), as well comparable data for the fishing industries. It helps with decision making at the European level by providing lawmakers with the most accurate data available. MARS STAT during FP6 received a budget of around €1.5 million.

The loss in the year's output can be attributed to the July heat waves and the continued drought plaguing most of Europe. Current harvest expectations are below the 2001-2005 averages, though not as severe as the conditions experienced during the particularly devastating heat wave in summer 2003. This year's harvest is expected be 7% larger than what was collected after that scorching summer.

Even though total yield is above the 2003 numbers, the geographic area affected by lower crop production has increased. This is due to regions in the higher latitudes being hit by higher temperatures earlier in the season when winter crops are in their most sensitive stages of development, i..e. ripening and maturity. However, water shortages didn't arrive until later in the year, so overall loss of production is less severe.

Dry conditions also lead to the depletion of water reservoirs and affected permanent forage areas. In response to the ongoing drought, the Commission has exceptionally voted to allow farmers in the most affected regions to open land for feeding where it is normally not permitted.

MARS technology has also proven to be effective outside of crop forecasting. For example, satellite images can also be used in enforcing antifraud initiatives. If a farmer receives subsidies for agreeing not to plant crops in order for natural habitat to take root, MARS can verify if he is indeed holding up his end of the bargain. Such information is useful for politicians when trying to optimise allocation of benefits. Specific techniques used by MARS to monitor crop and yield activity include: agro-meteorological models (Crop Growth Monitoring System - CGMS), low resolution remote sensing methods and area estimates using high resolution data combined with ground surveys.

DG Research
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