Using Satellites to unlock Europe’s Untapped Resources
Over 139 million tons of agricultural straw waste is produced in Europe each year. Straw is a valuable feed stock to produce bio-chemicals. Although, 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.
Disclaimer: This article was originally written for the 2017 Space for Sustainability Award, written by Gabriele De Canio and Katherine Bruce and appeared on, www.space-sustainability-award.com and was edited for the purpose of this post.
Fossil fuel-based products are tied with 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 solution to transition to the bioeconomy. However, such processes raise concerns on impacting local food security. Currently, less than 3% of the world’s available agricultural land is dedicated to growing crops for biomaterials and bio-chemicals [Fig. 1]. 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 residueseach 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 on straw waste – a valuable resource for producing bio-chemicals.
In order to fully exploit agricultural waste, how about developing an online platform that connects biobased companies to farmers? In this way we would have a virtual space that allows an effective management of agricultural waste. The platform would use satellite imagery, multispectral instrument data, and machine learning algorithms to predict data on the crop yield and its related waste production. The data would automatically upload to this online platform for biochemical factories to assess and plan their feedstock demand [Fig. 2(1)]. The factory would then contact the respective farmers to buy their agricultural waste [Fig. 2(2)]. Finally, the waste will be used as raw material for the production of bio-chemicals [Fig. 2(3)].
The platform would encourage farmers to manage their waste as it would constitute an additional source of income. Moreover, it would allow the industry to have a clear overview of the agricultural waste all-over Europe, thus making the resource more regular and predictable.
Benefits of the Platform
Environmental: Ultimately, enabling the use of the resource 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.
The transition to the bioeconomy is a necessary step towards a more sustainable world. We believe satellite imagery and machine learning techniques will provide a quantitative geolocalized measure of the agricultural waste across the world. Technology can help to bridge the gap between industry and farmers and exploit a currently untapped resource.