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Weather Impacts on Food: A QandA with NASA's Molly Brown
by Alison Ogden for Goddard Space Flight Center
Greenbelt MD (SPX) May 29, 2014


NASA Goddard research scientist Molly Brown is using satellite data to investigate and model the relationship between weather shocks and food prices in order to improve food security around the world. Image courtesy NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. View a video on Molly Brown's research here.

When floods, droughts, and other natural disasters hit isolated and poor regions of the world, it can have devastating impacts on the local price of food. Research scientist Molly Brown from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, is using satellite data to investigate and model the relationship between weather shocks and food prices - an ambitious endeavor in light of a changing climate.

After giving a talk on food security at NASA Goddard's studio, Brown sat down with NASA-TV producer Alison Ogden to recap the talk and find out why remote sensing from space is such an important part of Brown's research.

Let's start with the future. How will your research help address the food security problem?

My research connects three things: weather shocks, satellite data, and the price of food. If we can understand the connection between food prices and weather shocks then we can respond to the latter more effectively. USAID has a comprehensive food security assessment framework for regions at risk. I hope they'll incorporate my model into their framework to better understand how weather shocks, like droughts and floods, can impact food security.

Let's start with the future. How will your research help address the food security problem?

My research connects three things: weather shocks, satellite data, and the price of food. If we can understand the connection between food prices and weather shocks then we can respond to the latter more effectively. USAID has a comprehensive food security assessment framework for regions at risk. I hope they'll incorporate my model into their framework to better understand how weather shocks, like droughts and floods, can impact food security. So how does your model work exactly?

Satellites take images our planet everyday and we can analyze them to better understand when extremes in weather are likely to impact food production. USAID and the U.N. can provide food prices histories for hundreds of locations and commodities across the developing world.

You can then combine that food price information with satellite information on the weather shocks in a computer program. Researchers can run that program to help them understand the relationship of weather shocks with estimated changes in food prices. The model helps to determine the factors that are important for food prices in any one market.

Can you give me an example?

Niger is one of the poorest countries of the world where the average income is 400 dollars per year. Eighty percent of the people there are farmers who work in the agricultural sector. In 2009 we could see very clearly from satellite data that there was a major drought that affected the communities across Niger. On the ground, food became scarce because of the drought, and local prices started to rise.

The cost of moving grain from other countries made those local prices even higher. This kind of situation resulted in high rates of food insecurity and malnourishment among the most vulnerable portions of society. My model uses observations and computer information to relate satellite data, food production, and international price so that it can be used to improve humanitarian response to these kinds of crises.

What populations could your research impact potentially?

I want to reach decision makers in government and international-aid institutions so they can reduce the impact of weather and commodity price shocks on food security in vulnerable communities. There are many innovative ways we can use this modeling approach. We can use it to improve our understanding of interactions between markets in a country and trade networks within those markets, to find ways of increasing agricultural production in deficit regions, and to improve our response to extreme weather events as they occur.

And at what stage is your research in now and when do you expect it to be in use?

It's a work in progress at the moment. I'll be developing an operational version of this model over the next year and I hope it will be in use by organizations that assess and respond to food security crises by next summer.

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