Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Guidance From Above on Food Insecurity

• October 17, 2009 • 5:00 AM

An American-led famine early warning system uses satellite technology to predict where best to stave off future starving in the rest of the world.

When Kenya’s twice-yearly rainy seasons failed to materialize in early 2007, the shortfall plunged a quarter of the country’s 39 million inhabitants, some 10 million people, into food insecurity — the state when food, or access to it, isn’t available. Beyond the drought, the world financial crisis has led to a doubling in basic market commodity prices — a big problem in a country that needs to import grain and livestock as it is.

Compounding the crisis, said local meteorologist Gideon Galu, is a lack of quantifiable information. “In this area we have a very sparse observational network of meteorological and climatological data.” Fortunately, satellite technology can fill in the gaps to help those suffering on the ground.

In fact, this situation could have led to devastating famine if it weren’t for FEWSNET, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network. Funded by U.S. Agency for International Development, the $20 million-a-year network collaborates with international organizations and American institutions like the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA to provide information on emerging food security threats in 23 countries.

Galu, who works as a FEWSNET regional scientist in the Nairobi office, said that for Kenya, the system helps fill in the gaps in both analytical approaches and data sets lacking for the dry pastoral regions of his country. Along with Somalia and Ethiopia, these places comprise FEWSNET’s primary “hotspots.” Other target areas include Central America, Haiti and Afghanistan. (Beginning next year, FEWSNET will add Mongolia, India, North Korea, Malaysia and Indonesia to the list.)

But no matter where it operates, the goal is the same: to supply locally based analysts with a combination of satellite imagery and the latest climate computer models so they can conduct “targeted livelihoods-based assessments” that provide information about how a typical household produces and consumes food, earns and spends its income (including assets) and how it manages these resources in good and bad years to enhance its food security.

History of FEWSNET
Close to 70 million people died of famine in the 20th century, and it was a particularly awful crisis — the drought-fueled, 1984-1985 food crisis in west, east and southern Africa — that saw FEWSNET’s precursor, the Famine Early Warning System, created. (That famine also spawned pop-culture responses like Live Aid benefit concert and USA for Africa’s We Are the World charity single.)

Molly Brown, a research scientist at NASA, said that beyond the hundreds of thousands who perished, millions of people were affected in the region for years afterward through mass migrations and disrupted development.

“The only food in the market was 10 times or more its usual price — no one had the money to purchase it,” she noted. “What’s more, aid was slow in coming and highly inadequate due to the lack of information systems that linked conditions in those countries to international aid organizations.”

An illustration of how poorly equipped the aid community was at dealing with the issue is offered by Gary Eilerts, the USAID program manager for FEWSNET, recounting the bad old days before the network. “There were reports coming in from western Sudan and other places saying that people were starving. And when people responsible here for responding asked where exactly they should send the goods, they were told ‘western Sudan, of course.’ Peter McPherson, the AID administrator at the time was shocked to see how little specific information there was about where in western Sudan there was famine.”

Back then, the main “early warning” consisted of national-level indicators like “cereal balance” (food available from all sources nationally, divided by the number of people). Unfortunately, this was hardly enough information to present a comprehensive picture of what was really going on.

Today, FEWSNET digs much deeper by conducting village-level field work to gather first-hand accounts of household income, expenditure patterns, which are analyzed against both local economic growth and global market trends as well as health and conflict issues.

Also in the mix, various indexes derived from NOAA satellite imagery that provides real-time data for food security analysts. This includes the “normalized difference vegetation index,” which tracks the amount and vigor of vegetation by assessing photosynthesis levels. “Rainfall estimation” imagery uses infrared data from the European Union’s Meteosat weather satellites, rain gauge reports and microwave satellite observations to compare current rainfall with historical precipitation trends.

And though remote sensing is only part of what FEWSNET does, since the economies of many of these countries are dominated by food production, reliable and quantifiable weather and soils data are critical. Drought not only reduces a farm family’s ability to make a living, it also affects how much they can hope to eat. If they’re unable to grow enough food to sustain themselves, they’re forced to purchase it at prices up to 10 times higher than normal.

Perhaps more importantly, besides presenting a far more accurate picture of a country or region’s food security, this hard data also serve to motivate governments and food donors to respond to impending crises.

Eilerts offered an example of acting before the crisis fully bloomed: “USAID food aid was recently sent toward the Horn of Africa where we now expect another long and difficult period of food insecurity and rising malnutrition.”

FEWSNET alerts can also help food aid organization decide when not to send help, which happened recently in Afghanistan where high food prices were stressing household budgets of the poor. “Looking ahead, FEWS saw a high likelihood of a very good Afghan wheat harvest this summer, which has now come to pass,” Eilerts said.

Complicating Factors
Much has changed during the past 20 years thanks to the globalization of food markets and technological innovations, but Brown and Eilerts both agree that today’s food insecurity is less a problem of environmental conditions than the money to afford to buy what’s in the market. It’s known as “food access,” a concept developed by Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen. Beyond access, there’s “food availability” in a given region and “food utilization,” the ability to actually get the nutrition in that food and turn it into energy at the individual level.

Complicating all of this is political instability resulting from incompetent and hostile regimes.

Said Brown, “When we have droughts here in Virginia where I live, no one is food insecure because we have a functioning government that provides safety nets like welfare and insurance. In places like Niger, the government is extremely tiny and totally incapable of providing those safety nets, so when you have a weather crisis, you get famine because of the context in which it occurs.”

An equally daunting problem: the climate fluctuations brought on by global warming. According to Brown, because FEWSNET was designed in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the objective was to use the data to restore local areas to “normal” conditions. “There are places like Somalia, which haven’t had a government in 18 years. Every year, it gets less rainfall because of climate change, so the question is how can [we] even think of returning that kind of situation to normal since there is no normal.”

This has caused FEWSNET’s team members to rethink the program’s approach to food assistance. Instead of restoring systems to pre-crisis conditions, FEWSNET will look to advance an area to become more sustainable and resistant. “It doesn’t make sense to save people’s lives and have to come back next year and do it again,” said Brown.

The Future
One tool in preventing that is more sophisticated technology.

Despite advances in remote monitoring, Brown says soil moisture measurements are very poor. That’s why FEWSNET is anxiously awaiting a new satellite called SMAP — for Soil Moisture Active & Passive — to launch in 2012. A combined radiometer and high-resolution radar, it will be able to penetrate the tree canopy and yield high-resolution images of how moist the ground is to as deep as 30 centimeters below the surface, data critical for both farmers and the food aid community. Three years later, the Deformation Ecosystem Structure and Dynamics of Ice mission will provide height information of the vegetation canopy. It will help FEWSNET determine the location of crop fields for better monitoring and provide another tool for assessing the impact of climate change.

Despite the importance of remote-sensing data, as the meteorologist Galu suggests, one must separate scientific data (merged with livelihood data) from response time and kind. In Kenya, FEWSNET has played a decisive role in getting the government to address the current crisis. Just last month [on Aug. 18] it launched a multimillion-dollar initiative to replace “rain-fed agriculture” with a more efficient and reliable irrigation-based system.

Says Galu, “I do not wish to say that FEWSNET takes sole credit, but it has been part of the process of needs assessment and recommendations.”

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Become our fan.

Follow us on Twitter.

Add our news to your site.

Arnie Cooper
Arnie Cooper, a freelance writer based in Santa Barbara, Calif., covers food, travel and popular culture, as well as architecture and the sustainability movement. He is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal's Leisure and Arts page; his writing has also appeared in Outside, Esquire, Orion and Dwell. He's working on a memoir about his childhood experiences in New York City.

More From Arnie Cooper

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 22 • 2:00 PM

The Paradox of Women’s Sexuality in Breastfeeding Advocacy and Breast Cancer Campaigns

We capitalize on the sexualization of the breast to raise awareness about breast cancer, yet we cringe at the idea of a woman nursing her child.


December 22 • 1:00 PM

Keep That E-Reader Out of Bed and You’ll Feel Better in the Morning

New research finds e-readers, like other light-emitting electronic devices, can disrupt normal sleep patterns.


December 22 • 12:25 PM

Stop Trying to Be the ‘Next Silicon Valley’

American cities often try to mimic their more economically successful counterparts. A new study suggests that it’s time to stop.


December 22 • 12:00 PM

Pill Mills and the Rise of Controlled Substance Use in Medicare

Despite warnings about abuse, Medicare covered more prescriptions for potent controlled substances in 2012 than it did in 2011. The program’s top prescribers often have faced disciplinary action or criminal charges related to their medical practices.


December 22 • 10:00 AM

Economics at the North Pole: Are Santa’s Elves Slaves?

A pair of economists seek to reconcile two conflicting schools of thought in order to predict what sort of environments increase incentives for labor coercion.


December 22 • 8:00 AM

What Influences Whether Owners Pick Up After Their Dogs?

The presence or absence of suitable receptacles for bags is not the whole picture.


December 22 • 7:04 AM

Coming Soon: This Is How Gangs End


December 22 • 6:00 AM

Politicians Gonna Politic

Is there something to the idea that a politician who no longer faces re-election is free to pursue new policy solutions without needing to kowtow to special interests?


December 20 • 10:28 AM

Flare-Ups

Are my emotions making me ill?


December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


Follow us


Stop Trying to Be the ‘Next Silicon Valley’

American cities often try to mimic their more economically successful counterparts. A new study suggests that it's time to stop.

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.