Using satellites to unlock Europe’s untapped resource

by Katherine Bruce


[TL; DR] Over 139 million tons of agricultural straw waste is produced in Europe each year. Straw is a valuable feed stock to produce bio-chemicals. Yet, most of the straw waste is unmanaged and unexploited. In this post I discuss the possible solution to utilise ESA’s satellite imagery to connect industries to the resource through a platform that will predict agricultural waste across Europe in ‘real-time’. The project would help accelerate the transition to the sustainable bio-economy, bring new revenue to farmers and stimulate innovation in the bio-chemical sector from better understanding of the available resources.


Note: Originally, I wrote this article with Gabriele De Canio for the 2017 Space for Sustainability Award and it appeared on www.space-sustainability-award.com. I have edited it for the purpose of this blog post.

THE BIO-ECONOMY

Fossil fuel-based products are tied to numerous drawbacks, such as climate change, air pollution and loss of biodiversity. To counteract all these negative aspects, Europe needs to transition to the so-called `bioeconomy’ – an economy where renewable materials are converted into food, products and energy. The current value of the bio-economy is worth $61-93bn and has been predicted to grow to $175-420bn by 2025. Dedicating land for cultivating crops as a feed stock for bio-chemicals is one way to transition to the bioeconomy. However, such processes raise concerns because of their potential impact on local food security. Currently, less than 3% of the world’s available agricultural land is dedicated to growing crops for biomaterials and bio-chemicals. There is a need to find alternative resources to meet the growing demand.

WHY ARE WE WASTING STRAW?

Agricultural waste, such as crop residue, is an unexploited resource that would be a valuable alternative feed stock for biochemicals, such as bioplastics and biofuels. Indeed, recent studies have shown that Europe produces around 139 million tons of crop residues each year. Yet, the resource is not currently exploited at a large scale due to the following:

•    Unpredictability: changing weather patterns impact time of harvest •    Irregularity: quantity and quality of waste vary with each harvest •    Unmanaged: lack of incentive for farmers to deal with waste and little data available on waste quantity •    Undervalued: an unawareness of possibility to use waste as a resource

An opportunity exists to develop a holistic approach to agricultural waste management and, in parallel, to encourage new innovative business opportunities in the bio-based sector.

HOW WOULD SATELLITES HELP?

The use of satellite imagery has now become ubiquitous in our daily life: from environmental and disaster response to monitoring energy and natural resources, from maritime monitoring to urban management. Among the several applications in which Earth observation has proven to be beneficial is agriculture. By using a combination of optical satellite images and multispectral instruments, it is possible to monitor parameters related to crops and their health and maturity. For instance, we can identify the crop type, estimate the crop yields, monitor changes in soil conditions, and detect the presence of diseases (e.g. pest and blight). We can use this data together with Crop Simulations Models (CSMs) to perform precision agriculture – essentially more efficient cultivation practices. All the above improves the farm management processes, bringing substantial economic benefits to the farmers.


Several companies around the world are already providing customised agricultural recommendations to the farmers and many start-ups are currently entering the precision agriculture market because of its huge potential in generating revenue. Although the focus of all these businesses is on maximising crop yields and reducing overheads, no attention is given to straw waste - a valuable resource for producing bio-chemicals.

A SOLUTION?


To maximise our use of straw as a resource, one possible idea is to develop an online platform that would connect biobased companies to farmers. In this way we would have a virtual space that allows an effective management of agricultural waste. We can use satellite imagery, multispectral instrument data, and machine learning algorithms to predict data on the crop yield and its related waste production. Therefore, it would be feasible to automatically upload real-time data to an online platform for biochemical factories to assess and plan their feedstock demand [Fig. 1(1)]. The tool could then facilitate the contact between the industry and the respective farmer to purchase their agricultural waste [Fig. 1(2)]. The straw waste would be used as a feedstock for bio-chemicals [Fig. 1(3)].

We could use this platform to encourage farmers to manage their straw waste, since it would constitute an additional source of income. Moreover, it would allow industries to have a clear overview of starw all-over Europe, thus making the resource more regular and predictable.


Fig 1: Schematic flow of using satellite data to better predict and manage straw feedstock for biochemicals

BENEFITS OF THE PLATFORM?

Environmental: Ultimately, enabling the use of straw as a feedstock would lead to the reduction of fossil fuel consumption and farm waste. In some countries, farmers illegally burn their agricultural waste causing severe air pollution. The tool would eliminate this problem by adding value to a typically wasted resource.


Economic: The tool would facilitate sustainable economic opportunities. Take Europe as an example where research has suggested that fully exploiting agricultural waste may lead to revenue of €15 billion for the rural economy. Furthermore, job creation opportunities from bio-refineries and agricultural harvesting may be up to 300,000 by 2030. Additionally, using waste as a resource will significantly reduce manufacturers’ feedstock costs in comparison to utilising virgin material.


Governance: Having a clear picture of agricultural waste across Europe would not only benefit the private sector but also the public sector. Governments may use the database as a policy-making tool. For example, if a country has a significant proportion of crop residues, having quantifiable data would allow governments to build a case for change and set new policies to accelerate the transition to the bio-economy.


Society: From a social perspective, famers’ welfare is improved by the opportunity to make additional revenue from their agricultural waste. Typically, farmers leave this waste to disintegrate into the soil or sell the straw bales as animal bedding. Furthermore, informing the public of the availability of abundant resources would stimulate innovation in the biomaterials sector.

CONCLUSION

The transition to the bioeconomy is a necessary step towards a more sustainable world. Straw is still a hugely underutilised resource and I believe satellite imagery and machine learning techniques can provide a quantitative geolocalized measure of agricultural waste. Technology should be used to help to bridge the gap between industry and farmers and exploit this untapped resource.



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