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Roughly 37% of Earth’s land is today employed for agricultural purposes, with about 11% used for growing crops and the reminder for pasture. With more than seven billion mouths to feed greater demands are being put on agriculture than ever before, at the same time as land is being degraded by factors such as soil erosion, mineral exhaustion and drought.

Satellites are being applied to agriculture in several ways, initially as a means of estimating crop yields. Optical and radar sensors can provide an accurate picture of the acreage being cultivated, while also differentiating between crop types and determining their health and maturity. This information helps to inform the market, and provide early warning of crop failure or famine.

By extension, satellites are also used as a management tool through the practice of precision agriculture, where satellite images are used to characterise a farmer’s fields in detail, often used in combination with geographical information systems (GIS), to allow more intensive and efficient cultivation practices. For instance, different crops might be recommended for different fields while the farmer’s use of fertiliser is optimised in a more economic and environmentally-friendly fashion.

And agricultural monitoring is increasingly being applied to forestry, both for forest management and as a way of characterising forests as carbon sinks to help minimise climate change – notably as part of the UN’s REDD programme.

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Shaping next-generation scientists

29 September 2015

With the new Earth observation satellites carrying a range of technologies such as radar and multispectral imaging instruments for land, ocean and atmospheric monitoring, data are available for the next 20-30 years. However, this means little unless there are capable people handling them.

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Results from ESA's 4th Space App Camp

22 September 2015

Using satellites to predict plant and crop diseases is just one of the fresh ideas produced over a week-long camp dedicated to creating mobile apps using Earth observation data.

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Crop Yields

The forecast of crop yield is used operationally to cover continental areas such as Europe for the purposes of agricultural policy decisions. The techniques are also being implemented world-wide in more critical areas to support aid programmes.

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Forestry applications cover both the mapping of forest area and health of the canopy itself. Today the extent and health of the world's forests are key indicators in the monitoring of the world's climate.

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Land Use

The monitoring of land use is used extensively in the review of change through time, in particular in the examination of the move from natural habitats to more intensive agricultural use.

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