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Tackling malnutrition: New satellite can monitor nutrients in crops from space

Malnutrition is worsening as many people struggle to get basic essential nutrients from what they consume. Therefore, it is crucial to ensure everyday foods and staple crops like wheat, rice, and soya deliver as many nutrients as possible. New research suggests we can now do this efficiently from space.

Tracking nutrients in crops from space

Farmers often rely on the laboratory analysis of harvested grains to determine the nutrient concentration of their crops. However, this can be too expensive and time-consuming, making it impossible to adopt on a large scale.

Another downside of this method is that the nutrient concentration can only be measured after harvest. This means it is impossible to effectively intervene during growth. Fortunately, this new method of monitoring will eliminate these limitations.

A recent study shows that the Copernicus Sentinel-2 mission and the Italian Prisma mission could monitor the amount of nutrients present in staple crops.

How it works

According to the study, conducted by researchers from the University of Twente and the National Research Council of Italy, satellites offer an effective way to monitor crop nutrients over large plantations.

With this method, farmers would have time to intervene with fertilizers and other agricultural processes that improve nutritional content before harvest.

Satellite signals detect crop nutrients

The scientists observed that the hyperspectral instrument carried on the Italian Space Agency’s Prisma mission and the multispectral instrument carried on the Copernicus Sentinel-2 mission are sensitive to crop nutritional content.

The team recorded the signals in the satellite data associated with nutrients like potassium, zinc, magnesium, and phosphorus from a test site in Po Valley, Italy, where wheat, soybean, rice, and corn are grown. They compared these signals with the nutrients measured in the laboratory.

Encouraging results

Mariana Belgiu, a scientist on the team from the University of Twente, explained that their findings were encouraging for potassium (K), phosphorus (P), iron (FE), and Magnesium (Mg) and are on the way to doing the same for other nutrients. 

“For other nutrients, the feasibility remains an open question that needs further investigation. Thanks to ESA’s Science for Society program, we have launched a follow-on project, EO4Nutri, to take this step,” said Belgiu.

A global problem

According to UNICEF, more than one in five children under age 5 had stunted growth in 2023. This translates to 22.3 percent of children across the world. 

While these are better numbers than two decades ago (33 percent in 2000), we are still far from solving this universal public health problem.

Lack of micronutrients in crops

Malnutrition associated with a lack of micronutrients is also a well-documented problem. It currently affects over 25 percent of the people in the world, especially those who depend on staple crops like rice, soya, and wheat for their everyday nutrients.

The problem does not seem apparent in most cases because these people consume decent amounts of food. However, this is just calorie consumption. 

The vitamins and nutrients from these foods are too low to sustain good health and development in children and normal physical and mental function in adults.

According to Kul C. Gautam, former deputy executive director of UNICEF: “The ‘hidden hunger’ due to micronutrient deficiency does not produce hunger as we know it. You might not feel it in the belly, but it strikes at the core of your health and vitality.”

Effects of micronutrient deficiency 

There are various effects of micronutrient deficiency at every stage of the human lifecycle.

For instance, it impairs mental and physical development in babies and children, leading to stunted growth and reduced mental capacity.

Adults with micronutrient deficiencies experience frequent fatigue, reduced productivity, and weakened immune systems, leading to an increased risk of chronic diseases.

Detecting nutrients in crops is a game-changer

Monitoring the nutrient value of crops from space could transform how we currently practice agriculture. 

When farmers know the nutritional quality of their crops, they can implement adequate measures to improve and deliver the highest nutritional value possible.

The findings of the study have been published in the journal Remote Sensing of Environment.

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