On 25 January 2023, the European Space Agency (ESA), alongside the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) and the German Federal Office for Agriculture and Food (BLE) organised an event to bring together the space and agri-food sectors with the aim of tackling joint challenges and to draw up a shared roadmap. Without action, these challenges can only get worse.
Climate change and the growing world population make it increasingly difficult for food production to keep pace. Crop yields are in decline and natural resources, including soils, water, and biodiversity, are stretched dangerously thin. Moreover, agriculture is extremely vulnerable to climate change with increasing temperatures, weather variability, shifting agro-ecosystem boundaries, invasive crops and pests, and more frequent extreme weather events all having an adverse effect. With regard to farms, the nutritional quality of major cereals and the productivity of livestock are both negatively affected. The problem also works in reverse. Agriculture is a major part of the climate problem, generating 19–29% of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
The agri-food sector is also currently facing geo-political challenges, in addition to the large humanitarian catastrophe, that have caused an unprecedented crisis across all commodity markets. This has severely disrupted the supply chain, with prices of commodities such as energy and food increasing at the fastest pace in over half a century and threatening the fragile post-pandemic recovery of the global economy.
During the event, speakers, panellists, and participants had the opportunity to shape their shared vision for the future of sustainable agriculture using space-enabled technologies. As Nick Appleyard, Head of the Downstream Business Applications Department at ESA highlighted at the event, ESA Space Solutions is not a newcomer to the agriculture sector. The first project referenced in its portfolio was a German-led activity with Vista GmbH called Talking Fields, starting in 2009 with a feasibility study and later a demonstration project aimed at providing farmers with affordable and low time-consuming, end-to-end precision farming services to increase production efficiency. This activity helped ESA build its knowledge of the agriculture sector through providing its expertise in space. Several other success stories were highlighted by companies including Spacenus, Telespazio Vega Deutschland and academic institutions including GFZ-Potsdam.
In 2020, ESA Space Solutions first published a dossier named ‘Space for Green Applications’ to describe the key green challenges faced by various sectors (including agriculture) and how satellite applications can help to tackle these environmental challenges. It has since greatly expanded its Green Activities and now links with the European Green Deal and Farm-to-Fork strategy, topics protecting ecosystems and biodiversity. ESA Space Solutions has built on its strategic partnerships to accelerate its innovation in space. This includes DLR and BLE as it was agreed to increase the involvement and engagement of key agri-food businesses and corporates operating in the food supply chain, leveraging on their extended networks. It was highlighted how the ESA Business Applications and Space Solutions (BASS) programme had twice as much activity in 2022 and a further 26 activities led by German businesses over a 4-year period.
The German Space Agency at DLR shared how it launched the INNOspace® initiative in 2013, which promotes technology transfer between space and other sectors. The INNOspace® network Space2Agriculture has opened a successful dialogue between the German space and agriculture sectors. BLE described its involvement in ICT-AGRI-FOOD, which received co-funding via ERA-NET under Horizon 2020. In addition to this it will address societal challenges as part of Horizon Europe Cluster 6: Food, Bioeconomy, Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment, where it will work in a partnership on Agriculture of Data. ICT-AGRI-FOOD and BLE have been working very successfully with ESA for many years and in 2021 signed a Memorandum of Intent with ESA to highlight and re-inforce this exchange and joint activities between the two organisations.
The recording of the day can be watched here.