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How NASA and USDA are Teaming up to Foster Innovation and Insight in Agriculture

July 27, 2015

“From a research standpoint, we all know that we need to have a more responsible and flexible food system,” Brad Doorn, program manager for water resources applications research at NASA, recently told AgFunderNews. “We aren’t going to make any more land and we aren’t going to decrease the demand out there, so we have to create a food system with better and more timely information.”

Although it seems like space and agriculture have little in common, both the USDA and NASA have been working together to combat a host of environmental and agricultural issues for many years. Last week, the US deputy secretary of agriculture Krysta Harden and NASA administrator Dava Newman met at NASA’s AMES research center in Moffett Field, California, to execute an updated Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the agencies.

“The MOU ratifies and allows the United States Federal bureaucracy to work together more efficiently,” says Doorn. “Both agencies have one of the longest standing relationships when it comes to applied research. For decades, we have been collaborating to beable to better assess our food supply both nationally and globally.”

How does NASA help the USDA get a better understanding of our agricultural system? Using its fleet of space-ranging satellites and the International Space Station, NASA is in one of the best positions to capture a complete view of what’s happening around the planet. Through satellite imagery, NASA can obtain readings on a wide variety of things like potential crop yields, soil moisture, and natural disasters.

“Using our satellites we can tell what a crop’s yield may look like, whether it is better than last year or a drought year,” says Doorn. “Our systems also allow us to distinguish between types of crops so we can tell if there’s going to be a large soybean crop, or a small corn crop.” This information not only helps researchers learn about our global agriculture system, it helps farmers and other industry professionals make predictions about the stability of the food market.

NASA is equally involved in monitoring one of our most important resources: water. “We have numerous projects assessing how we can more efficiently manage our irrigation land using thermal measurements. We can also assess what the optimal water distribution might be, which allows us to estimate what a crop may really need in terms of water,” explains Doorn.

In addition to predicting future yields, NASA’s eyes in the sky may lead to improved advanced warning systems for impending disasters. Currently, the agency provides support to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a multi-agency project that assesses environmental stresses and farm disasters throughout the country. As the historic drought continues to permeate North America’s western coast, the project’s website has become a critical source for many groups. NASA has also been heavily involved in aiding the U.S. Forest Service with predicting and combating wildfires across the nation. The new agreement provides the USDA with increased access to NASA’s satellites to assess fire threats.

Part of the MOU embodies the agencies’ decision to increase their cooperation on space-borne remote sensing efforts to gather soil moisture data. One potential outcome of the expanded partnership could be using satellite data to create a series of soil moisture maps for California that could be used to improve weather and water availability forecasting and provide a drought early-warning system to producers.

“One of the great collaborations with the USDA has been trying to understand soil moisture better, because soil moisture has real interface between our water cycle and how many crops we may have and how well those crops are going to grow,” says Doorn. Through research and development, NASA is now able to obtain soil moisture readings within a few days through a systematic grid. “The ability to obtain this information over multiple seasons and years will provide a huge improvement in our knowledge of how well crops will be grown in a season, the types of crops we should be growing, and how this interfaces with our whole water cycle.”

Although many of NASA’s research projects have a clear agricultural theme, even some of their more space-focused endeavors have proved insightful for the USDA. “They may be looking at some issues that impact Mars and we can use that same science in an applied way to help our landowners, farmers, and ranchers,” Harden told AgFunderNews. “The process of measuring soil moisture, or determining how to track drought are the same thing that you would need to measure and determine on another planet.”

According to the deputy secretary, the longstanding partnership between the agencies is critical to ensuring the success of our future farmers and ranchers. “Our agencies have worked together for some time. The USDA has often had the basic research and foundation of research that NASA has taken and expanded upon,” says Harden. “In this case, it is NASA really looking at some key indicators that we believe may make a difference for farmers in the future, like soil moisture, early warning indicators, and how to track weather.”

While soil moisture mapping, weather, and disaster prevention or top of the partnership’s list, Harden highlights another potential issue that the agency hopes to tackle down the road: “Once we know what the problems are, and can track and have early warnings, how do we mitigate? I believe there will be spinoffs of issues, results, and technologies that come out of that info that will help our producers better manage all these changes and the severe weather that they are having to cope with.”

Although NASA and USDA make for a pretty impressive powerhouse of research and innovation, the private sector has a role to play in helping these agencies leave no stone unturned in the quest for better and more efficient agriculture technologies. Located 40 miles south of San Francisco in the heart of Silicon Valley, NASA’s AMES Research Center is one of 10 NASA field centers conducting world-class research and development in aeronautics, exploration technology, and science. Its location near one of the world’s greatest hubs for technological innovation and research appears to be no coincidence.

“While we look ahead to these challenges, we will need these private sector partnerships to join the USDA’s and NASA’s efforts to drill down on the data,” says Harden. “As NASA and the USDA collect more data, we are going to need more direction and technology in certain areas and the private sector can certainly play a big role in that.”

What does the USDA look for when pairing up with a private sector company? “Someone with an interest in food and agriculture production who is looking to provide tools to farmers in a cost effective way, and someone who can bring something else to the table as well,” says Harden. Companies with the requisite interest and altruism also need to have a technical focus or specialty that can help NASA and the USDA take its data one step further. “We are looking for partners that have an idea and who may be able to take the data and convert it into a new tool that can track drought, or provide new early warning systems.”

Many of USDA’s partnerships come in the form of grants. Since 2009, USDA has invested $4.32 billion in research and development grants. In recent years, research by USDA scientists has led to discoveries of everything from a potential solution for millions who suffer allergies, from peanuts to safe mosquito control that can help halt the transmission of diseases they spread, among others.

For NASA, pairing with Silicon Valley is equally as important. “The AMES relationship in Silicon Valley is so important,” says Doorn. Although a great deal of NASA’s innovation and development has focused on how to obtain data, an additional and perhaps even more important step in the process is making sense of the never-ending stream of information that trickles back down to Earth. “The relationship with Silicon Valley is key to us turning all of this space information coming down all the time into really useful information that the agricultural industry—whether it be farmers, producers, or consumers—can utilize,” explains Doorn.

When searching for a private sector partner, NASA looks for three things: “First, innovation. Are they really going to bring an added value to moving these space observations into a societal benefit,” explains Doorn. “Second is responsibility. It’s our responsibility to see that this data is used responsibly based on science proven factors. The third factor is sustainability. Is this something that society can really take on so that it doesn’t just fizzle away?”

Both agencies are also investing more time and money in cultivating another kind of partnership: youth education. Part of the MOU encompassed the agencies’ mutual desire to promote STEM and agriculture to younger generations. STEM, which stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, has become an increasingly popular area of focus for academic leaders and policymakers around the globe.

“Another element of this agreement is figuring out how to get young people thinking about careers in science. We want to work with NASA to promote STEMA, getting them excited and energized about the challenges the country and the world are facing,” says Deputy Secretary Harden. “There are so many opportunities for them in agriculture, research, and science.”

Although the “A” for agriculture has not traditionally been part of the STEM acronym, the Deputy Secretary hopes that it’s here to stay. “We can add the A in there and call it STEAM.”

The MOU certainly makes one thing clear. When it comes to technological innovation and research in agriculture, both NASA and the USDA are going full steam ahead toward the future.



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