NASA Podcasts

Science for a Hungry World: The View from Space, Pt. 4
10.22.09
 
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For other episodes in the "Science for a Hungry World" series, click here.

[Music begins]

Narrator: What if you couldn't simply go to the grocery store or market and buy what you needed? There is no shortage of food on the shelves, but you do not have the money to purchase that food. This is an issue that millions of people face, all across the world in countries big and small, rich and poor, each and every day. Access to food is dictated by several different factors like political strife, environmental disasters or social circumstances, and access to food, rather than availability is the key to determining food security.

Molly Brown: You can define food security as the ability of all people to have enough food for an active and productive life.

Narrator: Food security (or, the inverse idea of food insecurity) is determined by three factors.

Molly Brown: Food security has three aspects. There is food availability, food access and food utilization. Food availability is where there is enough food in a market or in a store or in a particular area to buy and thee is enough food in the region for everyone to get enough food. Food access is where there are problems with actually having enough money to buy that food where you need to buy it. And food utilization has to do with the health of the individual who is actually eating the food. So you can have a food security problem simply due to illness and disease.

Narrator: Molly works closely with an organization called the Famine Early Warning Network (or FEWS NET), an agency within the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Molly Brown: The Famine Early Warning System, what it does, is provide critical pieces of information on an ongoing basis about how well vulnerable communities are doing in meeting their food needs from day to day.

Gary Eilerts: There are many different ways you could become food insecure, and the purpose of FEWSNET is to identify those places where large numbers of people become food insecure for a variety of reasons.

Narrator: Two significant indicators of food security are weather and climate. The disproportionate effect of both can determine the severity of famine.

Molly Brown: Rainfall is very sporadic and its all about distribution and not amount. And so it could be that even though you're having a very low rainfall year, you get just enough at each time it gets dry so that you really will have a pretty good production year.

Gary Eilerts: If we could identify drought, that necessarily does not mean that they become food insecure, but the question is, how much food security have they lost? Does it but the question is, how much food security have they lost? Does mean that they go from three meals a day to two meals a day? Does it mean that they don't have enough food to provide sufficient food to their children? And do the children become malnourished? What we're trying to do is measure the level that they're at and predict which way they're going, so that we can intervene in time. through either USAID or through the community itself, somtimes.

Molly Brown: If a particular region is going to have a bad harvest, FEWS NET looks at the strength of the community. They look at how much was produced in previous years. Is this the first bad year after many good years or is it the fifth bad year in a row? So it's all about context. If we understand the context, we can then provide accurate early warning of a crisis before it comes down the pike.

Narrator: This context includes politics, and economics, factors that are not easily measured, especially not from space. What a space-based perspective can provide, however, is valuable information about crop health.

Molly Brown: Satellite remote sensing, particularly with vegetation, because of its certainty and reliability across space and time has really come to be absolutely critical in trying to determine when there's a problem. and when action is required. Having that early look at production that we get from remote sensing observations is critical to having the pieces in place and the analysis done and the people forewarned so that if there is a requirement for sending out food assitance, we will have all the little pieces in place so that we can do that in a rapid way.

Narrator: NASA will continue to provide this essential data and organizations like FEWS NET will continue to combat the factors that cause famine.

Molly Brown: In the next two decades, we expect to see simultaneous impacts from more people being around and needing to be fed, and climate change impacting our ability to grow food. And so we really don't know how climate is going to affect our food production capabilty but we really don't have the luxury to wait around and figure it out as it comes along.

Gary Eilerts: Food security is a major prolem, we need to be prepared to deal with it.

Molly Brown: And we're really going to be relying on remote sensing to tell us when we have a problem.

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