UN and Google forge ‘eye-in-the-sky’ forest mapping partnership

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has turned to tech giant Google to implement a high-resolution satellite-based data mapping system which could usher in an "unprecedented level of environmental literacy" for the forestry sector.

The new three-year partnership, announced late last week (15 April), will see the UN agency and its resource managers assess different landscapes and their carbon storage capacity – with an immediate focus on forests – using Google’s data archives from orbiting satellites.

“The more people involved, the better it works,” FAO’s director-general Graziano da Silva explained. “Understanding the effects of climate change; planning the improvements in the efficiency of production and distribution of food, and monitoring progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals require more frequent and precise data on the environment and its changes. It’s ushering in an unprecedented level of environmental literacy.”

FAO researchers are already coupling software with Google’s geospatial data to map and classify landscape profiles – which usually take months to complete – in just a few hours. The new partnership will aim to rapidly update forestry management by streamlining inventory reports and “opening the doors of scientific perception”, which will likely boost innovation in the sector.

The “vast” potential of future innovations and collaborations enabled by this partnership has already led to the creation of the Global Dryland Assessment – which has seen researchers and experts partake in an open-sourced assessment of the world’s most arid areas. Results will be published later this year.

Other innovative exercises include the Agency’s Locust Control Unit – which is using an “Earth Engine” to improve the forecasts of potential desert locust outbreaks – and numerous research platforms into plant health and damaged crop yield mitigations.

“We will be able to provide, every 10 days, forest assessments and in the near future food crop cover assessments, which are especially important in times of climate change,” FAO’s assistant director general for forestry René Castro said.

Out of the woods?

The new mapping system could provide researchers with a platform to differentiate between forest destruction caused by climate change or man-made deforestation. It has already caught the interest of NASA, which will be visiting Rome to study how to use these tools in late May.

With the lack of traceability still damaging companies sourcing timber and palm oil, many major brands are turning to intricate mapping systems in to track the extent of deforestation in supply chains.

International agri-foods business Cargill recently forged a new partnership with global research organisation World Resources Institute (WRI) to improve the sustainability of its supply chain, with a particular focus on deforestation and water risk.

Meanwhile, global consumer goods firm Unilever cancelled its contracts with a Malaysian-based palm oil producer and trader which has been suspended over deforestation and community conflict issues.

And last week, the world’s second largest palm oil plantation company Golden Agri-Resources (GAR) revealed that it is engaging with individual supplier mills which have allegedly been using ‘tainted and illegal’ palm oil sources.

Matt Mace

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