Satellites are able to see much more than we can with our eyes. Instruments in space can see beyond the light spectrum visible to humans into the infrared, ultraviolet and beyond. With the combination of both visible light and infrared, the agricultural industry can accurately find out how crops are doing under the ground. Satellite data can be analysed to tell whether grain receives enough moisture, how much nitrogen is in onions, how many potatoes are growing under the soil, as well as seven other types of measurements at a ten by ten meter accuracy. Basfood, a Dutch company focussing on agricultural information from space, created mijnakker.nl, where farmers can sign up and receive measurements about where exactly their land needs to be fertilised or watered. The technology is not only more efficient for the farmer, it is also better for the environment because it prevents the use of more water or fertiliser than is strictly necessary.
With a growing global population, ensuring food production security in the world's poorer countries is a major concern – one that is being eased with the help of data from Earth observation satellites such as Envisat which carries Dutch, German and Belgian instrument SCIAMACHY. Data on the climate and vegetation cover collected by satellites are proving to be an invaluable tool to fight food scarcity. With the aid of Earth observation data, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations state that, in Ethiopia there has been four successive years of increased cereal production. This shows that Earth observation data is leading to better understanding of the conditions that affect crops and grazing pastures, both fragile but vital components in African food production.
ESA has also brought in food experts from the Netherlands to evaluate opportunities for using space research to support healthy and functional food on Earth. Astronaut food is the ultimate nutritional challenge, because they have to give top performances every day in the most hostile environment in which a human being can survive. Knowledge gained in space can easily be transferred to food systems for people who have to deal with extreme conditions in their day to day life, like athletes or armed forces.