Tackling Global Food Insecurity: Reflections from the Space Forum at the U.S.–Africa Leaders Summit
Early warning of acute food insecurity requires strong global partnerships and data sharing among partners around the world, particularly in the regions where drought and hunger are most pervasive.
While these collaborative efforts span the globe, they are not solely earthbound. The use of shared data and technologies, both on Earth and in space, makes accurate early warning of acute food insecurity possible.
On the same day the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) warned of increasing hunger-related deaths in drought-stricken Somalia, United States government leaders pledged their commitment to increase cooperation with African nations on shared global priorities, including promoting food security and responding to the climate crisis. Joint engagement around the use of space-based technologies, especially Earth-observing satellites and the data they gather, is central to the realization of that commitment.
As part of the 2022 U.S.–Africa Leaders Summit, Nigeria and Rwanda became the first African nations to sign on to NASA’s Artemis Accords. The Accords represent a bold, multilateral vision for the future of space exploration and guarantee peaceful purposes and transparency in future space endeavors. The 23 countries that have signed the Artemis Accords to date are pledging to participate in responsible space exploration, which includes sharing access to scientific data that can contribute to Earth-bound emergency assistance.
“Space-based technology is becoming an increasingly powerful tool for addressing global challenges such as agricultural productivity and climate change,” Rwandan President Paul Kagame said in his signatory remarks.
FEWS NET has harnessed the power of space-based technologies to help develop forecasts of acute food insecurity since the program began in 1985. This technology would be meaningless, however, if not for FEWS NET’s large network of regional scientists and national hydrometeorological services scientists — working together with researchers from NOAA, NASA, USGS, UCSB’s Climate Hazards Center, and the NASA Harvest program at the University of Maryland — who comb through satellite data and use their local expertise to warn global partners when a serious drought may be on the way.
FEWS NET’s networked approach, grounded in local collaborations, ensures that globally acquired satellite data are contextualized with the knowledge of country and regional experts, leading to appropriate interpretations of data with regard to seasonal calendars, agricultural practices, and other important factors.
“The technical collaborations between FEWS NET’s climate scientists and its strategic partners at national to global levels have been instrumental in the advancement of long-lead forecasts and their contextual interpretation in support of decision-making at all levels,” Gideon Galu, FEWS NET Regional Scientist for East Africa, said.
FEWS NET’s use of Earth observation satellite data and climate model output helped regional scientists accurately predict the latest five consecutive seasons of drought in the eastern Horn of Africa — beginning in 2020 and continuing until the present — giving aid organizations time to deploy urgent assistance to prevent the worst outcomes of a food security crisis.
USAID Chief Scientist Dr. Ticora Jones highlighted FEWS NET’s work during the U.S.–Africa Leaders Summit Space Forum as she discussed the use of space and space-based technologies to work towards the United Nations’ 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
“The innovation of Earth-observing satellites, which capture imagery and other data at ever-increasing spatial and temporal resolutions, has radically changed how we monitor the state of the Earth,” Jones said. “We can monitor temperature, rainfall and soil moisture in near real-time to better understand our changing climate and its impacts on people, supporting progress toward SDG 13 on Climate Action.”
Jones noted that pursuing robust development and application of these space-related technologies requires a ready pipeline of capable talent, something FEWS NET has been collaborating with regional scientific institutions and national hydrometeorological services to develop for nearly 40 years.
FEWS NET regional scientists based in Kenya, Ethiopia, Botswana, Niger and Guatemala frequently organize workshops and training events on the use of remote sensing and related monitoring products, as well as the application of analytical software tools that use them as input.
“With increasing availability of open source Earth observations data from a growing array of satellite missions, and rapid advances in powerful open source computing capabilities like Google Earth Engine, democratizing access to these data across the continent is no longer only an aspiration but a goal within reach,” FEWS NET Team Leader Kiersten Johnson said. “Tackling the tightly interlinked crises of our generation — climate change, biodiversity loss and widespread food insecurity — requires all of us working together to find evidence-based solutions.”
“African leaders from among the youth, and from villages to national capitals, all have an urgent role to play in understanding and addressing these crises. Leveraging satellite data is fundamental to those tasks, and FEWS NET stands ready to continue and expand on our decades-long partnerships with African scientists to ensure we are prepared to engage in our shared future together.”