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We Can't Shoot for the Moon without Space Technology

Global Food for Thought by Margaret Hegwood, Mark Noftz, and Tara Ippolito
Nasa astronaut

Federal investment in space technology is crucial to help farmers fight climate change—this generation's moonshot.

Two weeks ago, US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm proclaimed that combating climate change is ‘our generation’s moonshot.’ Just before, President Biden pledged to reduce US greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions 50 percent by the year 2030.

Changes to the US agriculture will likely be a cornerstone of President Biden’s climate initiatives and rightly so. In 2018, US agriculture emitted an estimated 698 million metric tons of CO2 equivalents. Animal agriculture is responsible for as much as 78 percent of total agriculture emissions and meat consumption aggravates GHG emissions in the US. To make matters worse, climate change is already starting to affect all aspects of the US food system—from crop yields to animal welfare to farm worker productivity.

Thankfully the Biden administration seems to be taking agriculture’s contribution to climate change seriously. Already President Biden’s Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad includes efforts to gain input from Tribes, farmers, ranchers and other key stakeholders on how to best use US Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs to encourage the voluntary adoption of climate-smart agriculture practices. At the recentmLeaders Summit on Climate the United States agreed to lead the creation of the Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate. The goal of this mission is to accelerate the research and development of innovations that help the global food system decrease carbon emissions and enhance food security.

One additional strategy the US government can utilize to help the agriculture industry fight climate change gives life to Secretary Granholm’s statement regarding ‘our generation’s moonshot’: consistent federal funding and support for space technology.

Space Technology in the 21st Century

Space technology is broadly defined as any technology that deals with activities beyond Earth’s atmosphere. However, the impact of space technology extends beyond space to affect Earth systems as well. For example, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) developed the jaws of life, often used by firefighters today to free trapped crash victims. The agency also invested heavily in wireless and portable electronic devices. The earliest laptops and headphones were the byproduct of strategic innovations and partnerships forged with NASA. NASA has provided key developmental expertise on technologies that range from MRI scans to memory foam to safe drinking water.

Unfortunately, federal funding for the research and development of space technology has been in a constant tug-of-war over the years. In 2020, the Trump administration proposed that NASA’s budget be decreased by a substantial amount including major cuts to climate-related projects. While the NASA budget cuts were ultimately reversed by Congress, the previous administration's dismissal of climate change also proposed decreased funding for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for 2021 fiscal year. NOAA provides data collection, monitoring, and evaluation on a variety of key issues relevant to agriculture.

Historically, lack of funding for agencies like NASA stems from popular prejudices that space exploration is a waste of government resources and merely serves to generate additional government jobs for over-educated scientists. Even earth-based projects, such as those mentioned earlier, are subject to skepticism from American politicians and citizens alike. Researchers report that most millennials are uninspired by the “Apollo Myth” and are disenchanted by the idea of American exceptionalism, which fueled 1960s support for the space race.

Yet, America’s disenchantment with the inspirational approaches used by NASA are misguided. NASA’s long-term investments provide an average return on investment of $14 to the economy for every $1 of government expenditure. While media coverage shows NASA’s rockets and rovers landings, the agency’s lesser-known advancements in space technology are helping to solve global issues like climate change. Nowhere is this more clear than in the agriculture industry.

How Agriculture Benefits from Space Technology

Over the years, farmers and agribusinesses have utilized a variety of space technologies alongside new crop varieties and irrigation technologies to fight the negative impacts of a changing climate. Precision agriculture, a technology that utilizes satellite data and remote sensing to help farmers use inputs more efficiently, is deployed on 30-50 percent of US corn and soy acres. These methods help farmers make smarter decisions, use inputs more efficiently, reduce environmental impact, and improve yields.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are providing farmers with high spatial and temporal resolution information on drought stress, weed and pathogen detection, nutrient status and growth vigor assessment, and yield prediction. Water-use efficiency in irrigated systems is improved by the use of remotely sensed evapotranspiration. Soil Moisture—which can inform drought conditions and irrigation needs—is now detected using radar and radiometer data.

Beyond benefits for cropping systems, NASA has catalyzed innovations critical for protein producers. Ranchers can now use global positioning systems (GPS) to track their cows. Shellfish farmers can use satellite imagery to spot harmful algal blooms. A 2007 study of microbes living in Yellowstone National Park funded by NASA became the basis of the fermentation process used by alternative protein company Nature’s Fynd.

The benefits of investment in space technology cross borders to help some of the world’s most vulnerable populations. For example, NASA provides some of the world's most accessible and reliable data - making it a valuable asset to researchers conducting work in low-income countries. The NASA Famine Early Warning Systems Network has been in operation since 1985 to help governments and relief agencies prepare for and respond to humanitarian crises using evidence-based analysis and remotely sensed data.

Small-scale extrusion technology designed with funds from NASA to process food in space is now being used across sub-Saharan Africa to develop nutritious and shelf-stable products made from locally sourced foods. In Kenya, food entrepreneurs use this technology to create naturally fortified foods for vulnerable populations, like infants and mothers. More recently, this technology was tested as a tool to improve food safety in maize—a staple food for a majority of East Africa.

Undoubtedly, investment in space technology will be critical to addressing climate change and food security in the 21st century. While efforts to collaborate between the ;USDA and NASA are already underway, recognizing the benefits of continued federal support for the agencies’ combined efforts will be necessary to achieve a 50 percent reduction in America’s GHG emissions by the year 2030. This generation—especially our agriculture industry—will not have a successful moonshot without space technology.

About the Authors
Margaret Hegwood
PhD Student, Environmental Studies and USDA Fellow for Food Technology and Food Security, CU Boulder
Mark Noftz
MS Student, Aerospace Engineering, Purdue University
Tara Ippolito
PhD student, Environmental Studies and NSF Fellow, CU Boulder