Where Satellites and Soils Meet

What can space technology tell us about the health of Earth’s soils? How can farmers and other agrifood sector stakeholders use data and digital services to advance soil health? During the 2022 Geodata for Agriculture and Water (G4AW) Conference on 4 October, the Netherlands Space Office ‘G4AW’ team, Netherlands Food Partnership and other expert partners shed light on the use of digital services for soil health.

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How can data be used?

The use of different kinds of data is an important tool to optimise farming strategies for soil health all over the world. The experiences of G4AW, ISRIC and 52impact show that a combination of satellite data and geo-data is needed to assess the state of the soil in a particular area. Geo-data gathered with use of soil samples provides localised information on soil health. Satellite data can extrapolate localised data to cover a larger area and create soil maps, as done by ISRIC. This is important because soil sampling - though the most precise method to gauge soil health – is costly and time-consuming. Generally, soils maps are considered a useful tool, as they provide a good indication of the health of the soils in a district or province. Still, the question remains whether these are good enough for farmers working on specific plots of land with a unique soil composition.

Local solutions: farmers as the receiver and the source of data

The answer to this question starts with another question: what data do farmers need for the successful management of their soils? For almost all farms, an improvement in access to and use of appropriate soil data can make a big difference. The more localised data is sourced, the more precise it is and the more efficient farming methods become. Several organisations and companies are currently exploring this domain. ISRIC, for example, is developing an app for farmers, which they can use to upload information from their own farmland. The app then provides farming advice based on this information complemented by satellite data. More information can be found in the presentation given by Rik van den Bosch, director of ISRIC.

The company 52impact transforms spatial imagery and data into actionable maps and information products, using data sets developed, amongst others, by ISRIC. 52impact contributes to an initiative in Uganda to make the coffee value chain more sustainable, in collaboration with MVO Nederland. Though these open data sets provide useful information on soil and corresponding farming methods, director Koen Verberne recognises the difficulties in interpreting this high-level data within the context of local farmland. Involving farmers in data collection and recognising the great variety of soils between farming plots would help move from global analysis to providing localised farming advice.

Business models

Another challenge is that investing in data-driven information tools for soil is not often the first priority for agrifood stakeholders, as apparent when looking at the G4AW portfolio. Farmers may not be able to afford or foresee a clear return on their investment in such tools. As emphasised during the presentation by Kees van Duijvendijk, advisor satellite applications at the Netherlands Space Office, developing effective and sustainable business models is a cross-cutting challenge. It has been a topic of discussion within many sessions at the G4AW conference. The (financial) viability of business models not only influences farmer investments in soil data, but also those of intermediary players, such as advisory businesses which provide soil tests and advice.

Data for all

Precise and affordable data-driven soil information that complements business models starts with open source data. Farmer-sourced data could contribute to this by making more (standardised) open source data available. As stated by Rik van den Bosch: the tragedy of soil science is that everyone has their own procedures and standards – and then don’t publish it. With more open data, it is likely that investment in local opportunities can be increased.

The session ended with a definite call: implement local solutions and ensure soil and satellite data is available to all. This is only possible if stakeholders around the world collaborate to add to the quantity and quality of data – with the common goal of protecting and restoring the Earth’s soils.

Want to learn more about NFP’s collaborative work on soils? Check out our webpage.