If current environmental trends continue through the end of the century, the world could see corn production decline by 40% but wheat yields gain 30-40%, according to a top NASA scientist.

Karen St. Germain, director of the Earth Science Division in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said at USDA's recent Ag Outlook Forum that NASA's assessment isn't a forecast of what will happen in 2099. But it is a tool policymakers can use to imagine what might happen if no there is no change in current practices in the next 75 years.

Crop production data collected by NASA satellites and analyzed by scientists incorporating USDA research also indicate the long-term outlook is for large geographic shifts in crop production, she said.

NASA's assessment is that corn yields could decline across North and Central America, West Africa, Central Asia, Brazil and China because of rising temperatures. Meanwhile, wheat could be grown in more areas of the northern United States and Canada, the North China Plains, Central Asia, southern Australia and East Africa.

St. Germain also offered more confident short-term predictions. Recently, NASA has been able to measure soil moisture to predict corn yields with relative accuracy two weeks in advance.

“Monitoring drought from space really estimates what’s going on beneath the surface of the soil,” she said. It has developed the ability to track atmospheric rivers, showing “a massive amount of rain in the western United States “but not enough to end the California drought.” 

NASA also has charted the extent of damaging hail in the agricultural Midwest and Great Plains by month during the summer growing season since the turn of the century, giving farmers and insurance companies a better idea of risk from hail damage to crops.

St. Germain also showed how the agency’s satellites have catalogued the extent of depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer, an important source of water for crop growth from Nebraska through west Texas.

The NASA and USDA partnership allows the ability to “see the entire world,” she said. “We’d like to help the agriculture community get ahead, to determine what we should be doing next.” 

Cooperation with other countries’ space agencies, especially Europe’s, has helped measure the origins and extent of rising sea levels. Scientists now believe that about one-third of sea level rise is caused by polar ice melting, another third from mountain ice melt and the final third from ocean warming as water temperatures increase, she said.

Bill Northey, a former Iowa agriculture secretary who was USDA's undersecretary for farm production and conservation during the Trump administration, said he got the sense from St. Germain that NASA “is interested in even greater cooperation” with production agriculture.

He wondered whether NASA surveillance could confirm existing surveys of how cover crops are being used.

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“I struggle to come up with all the different ways they might work together,” he added. “I wonder if, in time, it could help inform the drought maps produced by the University of Nebraska to look at soil moisture in addition to the information they get” from current work.

While Northey was at USDA, producers who believed they should have been included in disaster area declarations would ask the department whether it was possible to get more granular assessments of damage within counties. Data from NASA surveys also could be useful for validating crop insurance claims, he said.

St. Germain said NASA provides “near real-time tools and products that farmers can use today to make informed decisions.” Using more than 40 years of satellite data, it can measure crop productivity and drought impact on plant growth.

USDA’s Agricultural Research Service recently enhanced a long-standing partnership with NASA to use satellites to measure the amount of moisture produced by evaporation and transpiration from plants.

The information will help farmers schedule irrigation, ARS said. NASA will provide USDA with frequent global estimates of surface and root-zone soil moisture, and USDA will enhance its research on plant growth and nutritional potential as nutritious foods to supplement prepackaged food for astronauts living in space.

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