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.
Rita Rinaldo, Head of Projects and Studies Implementation Division for Downstream Business Applications, said “We are pleased to work together with BLE and DLR in this journey to make the agri-food sector part of the green transition. Over the past two years, the ESA BASS programme implemented almost 30 projects relating to the ‘Sustainable Farm to Fork’ topic worth about 16 MEUR, which have delivered economic, societal, and environmentally sustainable services for the farmers, their suppliers, and the whole value chain. The collaboration with BLE, and the support of DLR, have determined and shaped the upcoming ESA BASS Kick-Start Call on ‘Connected Agriculture’ planned to open in April 2023. Moreover, thanks to the invaluable inputs received today in Berlin and the engagement of several sector players, we decided to launch a new initiative in Q4 2023 which will focus on the sustainable transformation of agriculture through digitalisation and space. These initiatives address the green and sustainability goals of ESA Agenda 2025, contributing to the objectives of the ESA Space for Green Future Accelerator.”
Further funding opportunities include the Feasibility Study Sustainable Digitally Connected Solutions for the Commodities Crisis aimed to mitigate the latest geopolitical events.
Dr. Robin Ghosh, Coordinator of the INNOspace Initiative and Project Lead of the INNOspace Network Space2Agriculture at the German Space Agency at DLR, said: “Currently, agriculture and forestry are facing major challenges: digitalisation, climate change, the demands of the necessary biodiversity protection and the transition to sustainable agriculture will bring about fundamental changes. For this reason, it is of great value that ESA, BLE and DLR have joined forces to promote the best use of space services and technologies to tackle those challenges. Our common goal is to drive cross-sector innovation between the space and agricultural domain and to facilitate new cross-industry projects with our complementary funding schemes and resources. To achieve this, Space2Agriculture represents a powerful tool: The network has already grown to over 235 partners since its founding in 2019. The members consist of start-ups, SMEs and large companies, universities and research institutions as well as associations, ministries and public authorities. With our partners we make use of this aggregated experience and knowledge to identify critical pain points in agriculture and to search for effective solutions using space technology.
In addition to this, the financial commitment of Germany in the ESA Programme Business Applications and Space Solutions (BASS) underlines the need to fund new business models and to bring space technologies to market. The German Space Agency uses the synergies between ESA Business Applications and Space2Agriculture to connect the relevant stakeholders, to publish tenders based on actual needs and to develop concrete and sustainable services.” Johannes Pfeifer, Coordinator of ICT-AGRI-FOOD at the Federal Office for Agriculture and Food (BLE), said “The conference was really well done. It brought together some of the key players from the community at the intersection of agri-space and technology. We see it as a starting point for future exchanges between ESA, BLE and DLR on the needs of stakeholders in developing innovative technologies to make our agricultural and food systems more sustainable, resilient and secure, and also to make agricultural and rural jobs more attractive. We will use the insights shared by the participants to develop on the one hand future calls for research proposals and on the other hand related complementary networking activities. A warm thank you to all who are supporting us on this journey of transforming our agricultural and food systems."
The recording of the day can be watched here.