Here’s What This Satellite Found Mapping Latin America’s Agricultural Decline

via Motherboard – VICE

A new study was the first continental-scale mapping of agricultural changes over more than a decade.

Over the past few decades, Latin America has seriously upped its game in the global agricultural trade. It’s financial expansion during the last 20 years has increased more than any other region across the globe. But according to researchers at the University of British Columbia (UBC), agricultural expansion has waned across all regions in the wake of the global economic downturn.

The study, published in March in the journal Environmental Research Letters, relied on satellite imagery, and is the first continental-scale mapping of agricultural changes over more than a decade.

In the summer of 2007, the collapse of two Bear Stearns Hedge funds helped send the world into another era of bank failures, credit crunches and massive layoffs. It was also during this year that the decline in Latin America’s agricultural expansion began, according to the study,

“Nearly every agricultural region across Latin America slowed down in expansion from 2007 to 2013, compared to the previous six years,” said Jordan Graesser, the study’s lead author, in a release.

Graesser explained to me over the phone that he and his team used large-scale satellite mapping to assess where and how the agricultural industry fell off it’s upwards climb. Their satellite was launched in 2000, and it has been capturing data every two weeks for nearly 15 years. But it was only over the past year that Graesser and his team decided to compile the images collected from 2001 to 2013, and figure out what it all meant.

Of course, satellite imaging is nothing new. For a decade, Google Earth has made it easy to travel cross-borders from the safety of your bedroom. In terms of surveying economic changes on a smaller scale, a satellite camera was even pointed at a Wal-Mart parking lots to correlate the company’s earnings with the comings and goings of customers.

Rather, the uniqueness of this study isn’t necessarily the team’s use of satellites, or even their decade long use of surveillance cameras. The unique aspect resides in the way they chose to split up their analysis of the region. Agriculture wasn’t viewed as this all encompassing entity, but instead, divided into two––cropland and pastureland agriculture.

They would have still come to the dismal conclusion of an agricultural downturn had they looked at the industry as a whole. But by doing so, they would have missed out on all the regions that are actually experiencing growth. Take the Gran Chaco forest in Argentina as an example. The satellite data confirms that crops have been declining all over Argentina, but when looking at the pastureland specifically in the forest, they found that expansion remained steady.

By doing so, they were also able to identify a line of segregation. “In very few areas across the region were cropland and pastureland expanding side by side,” said Graesser. Crop expansion was popular near markets, whereas pasture expansion occurred primarily on the outskirts of a country. He pinpoints this as interesting research topic from an environmental viewpoint. Are there not enough natural nutrients in pasturelands to make the soil rich enough for crop growth? And if so, then do pesticides and fertilizers play a role?

Another unique aspect of their study was their focus on the entirety of Latin America, instead of just focusing on some of the most popular and widely studied forests. “We wanted to look outside the Amazon,” explained Graesser.

The study also suggests that this overall downturn in expansion may only be temporary. If the global economy continues to recover and crop prices continue to rise, there may be an incentive for farmers to continue to expand. But in order to measure this accurately, further research will be required.

Original publish date: May 15, 2015

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