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Monitoring Crop Conditions in Countries at Risk of Food Insecurity: The GEOGLAM Crop Monitor for Early Warning

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This post is written by Christina Justice, Kara Mobley, and Brian Barker at the University of Maryland, Department of Geographical Sciences.

Record above-average rainfall received across East Africa since late 2019 has wreaked havoc over the region, leading to widespread flooding, mudslides, flashfloods, and river overflows; these caused casualties, infrastructure and crop damage, and large-scale population displacement. Since the beginning of the March to May (MAM) season, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) has estimated that at least 1.3 million people have been affected by flooding, and an estimated 481,000 people have been displaced following disastrous floods across the region. In many cases, the floods have affected the highly populous and agriculturally productive regions, which poses concern for main season agricultural production prospects. In addition, the above-average rains have created suitable conditions for the outbreak and spread of desert locust across the region, which continues to pose a threat to main season crops and rangelands.

In countries vulnerable to food insecurity, potential threats to production, as exemplified in the ongoing flooding and desert locust outbreaks in East Africa, put pressure on the most at-risk populations, including smallholder farmers that depend on their own farm's production for their livelihood and food supply. The success or the failure of a crop for countries where food security is extremely vulnerable can result in famines, political unrest, and the need to increase imports from other countries along with food aid in some cases. Early warning of these types of impending shortfalls in crop production is critical to trigger early action by humanitarian aid organizations and to promote policy implementation for food security improvements.

The Crop Monitor for Early Warning (CM4EW) is part of the international framework of the G20 Group on Earth Observations Global Agriculture Monitoring (GEOGLAM) initiative and was developed by the GEOGLAM community with international support from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), NASA Harvest, and a range of international partners in response to this need for open, timely, and science-driven information on crop conditions which reflect a consensus among the main international food security and agricultural monitoring organizations. The goal of CM4EW is to provide enhanced early warning of potential impacts to production, such as the current floods in East Africa, to aid and inform humanitarian relief operations in their response to a disaster.

The GEOGLAM CM4EW relies heavily on satellite-derived vegetation indices and agroclimatic indicators. In many of the countries covered by CM4EW, access to frequent and updated information on crop development and condition is scarce due to the high cost and capacity needed to conduct field assessments. In these areas, where uncertainty in current crop conditions is high, satellite-based Earth observations (EO) significantly contribute to providing such crucial crop information, allowing decision-makers to track crop development and general crop condition throughout the growing season, and support decision-making processes related to early disaster response and mitigation measures that reduce food insecurity.

Towards this effort, CM4EW assessments incorporate multi-source and consensus-based information on agro-climatic conditions that are likely to impact production into a single consolidated monthly report that assesses the conditions of in-season staple crops for countries in East Africa, West Africa, Middle East and North Africa, Southern Africa, Central and South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Central America and the Caribbean.

CM4EW Process and Products

Throughout the month, CM4EW works to gather pertinent data and information on crop conditions from organizations similarly engaged in food security. Towards the end of the month, partner organizations -- including USAID Famine Early Warning System, the World Food Program, UN Food and Agriculture Organization Global Information and Early Warning System (GIEWS), the European Commission's Joint Research Center (JRC), Asia RiCE, the Intergovernmental Authority of Drought and Development Climate Prediction and Applications Centre (IGAD ICPAC), and national institutions such as the South African Agriculture Research Council (ARC), which already monitor crop conditions as part of their early warning activities -- submit crop condition assessments for their respective regions to an online interface, and participate in a joint teleconference to discuss changes and discrepancies that may have resulted in partner assessments. All information is then gathered into a single assessment report outlining regional and country-specific crop conditions and drivers. To accompany the regional text, maps are developed to provide an overview of crop conditions, and weighted pie charts reflecting agricultural production are generated to illustrate a country's share of total regional agricultural production. In the most recent CM4EW report, published in May 2020, the East Africa regional text outlined the impacts of early-onset and above-average seasonal rains, and concerns regarding the widespread flood impacts on crop conditions and the ongoing desert locust outbreak (Figure 2).

In addition to the regional crop assessments, the CM4EW has teamed up with the University of California Santa Barbara Climate Hazards Center (UCSB CHC) since 2018 to provide global and regional climate outlooks to give insight into weather events that may impact crop outcomes, such as precipitation and temperature anomalies, as well as the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO). In the CM4EW May 2020 report, USCB CHC developed an East Africa Regional Outlook depicting the likely continuation of above-average rainfall across much of the region through May, which is expected to result in additional flooding and promote favourable breeding conditions for desert locusts (Figure 3).

In the monthly reports, CM4EW also develops critical alerts for developing situations that could have significant impacts on crop conditions and food security. For instance, the CM4EW May 2020 report included an alert on the current desert locust outbreak in East Africa which poses a significant concern for crops as continued rains could promote new swarm formation in June and July that will coincide with the beginning of main season harvests (Figure 4).

The regional text, graphics, climate outlooks, and alerts are incorporated into the finalized CM4EW report which is published on the Crop Monitor website the first Thursday of every month. For more information on the Crop Monitor products and process visit the website www.cropmonitor.org.

CM4EW Way Forward

CM4EW is continually adapting and evolving its products to provide an extensive analysis of crop conditions and potential impacts on production. Since February 2019, CM4EW has developed mid-month Special Reports in response to a request from UNOCHA for even more frequent and updated information on crop conditions as provided by CM4EW in the face of developing concerns. Special Reports have been developed in response to situations that may have significant regional or global impacts on crop production and are created in collaboration with partner organizations that are uniquely situated to provide inputs on the given region. For example, in May, CM4EW collaborated with partner organizations to develop a Crop Monitor Special Report on the East Africa flood impacts on agriculture, outlining the ongoing flooding and potential impacts on main season production prospects. With this, CM4EW is expanding its reach to provide timely information in response to developing agro-climatic situations and respond to requests for the most updated and available information. Additionally, CM4EW and UCSB CHC are collaborating to expand the forecasting component of CM4EW to provide outlooks across all seven regions covered in the CM4EW monthly reports in the near future. This expansion will help to provide an earlier warning of potential agroclimatic impacts on production and allow earlier action by humanitarian agencies.

Operational since February 2016, the CM4EW has become an internationally recognized source of reliable information on early warning and crop conditions and is often used to inform humanitarian organization decisions on food allocation and assistance. Through collaborating with the main international humanitarian agencies, regional bodies, and national agencies, the CM4EW has been able to provide timely and accurate on the ground information before humanitarian crises arise.