Molly E. Brown, Ph.D., this week's Food Hero, is a Research Scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. She earned her Ph.D. in geography from the University of Maryland College Park, where she specialized in Remote Sensing, Economics, and Development. Dr. Brown’s current work with NASA is driven by two main questions: "How does the earth system respond to natural and human-induced changes?" and "What are the consequences of change in the Earth system for human civilization?” Food Tank had the opportunity to speak with Brown about her research, and what it can offer to experts working to combat climate change and food insecurity.

You mentioned in your 2012 Ignite speech that there is more food available now than ever before. Have you done any work examining the impact of this increased food production on climate change?

I am a geographer, not a climate scientist, and have not done work on the impact of agriculture on climate change drivers. My interest focuses on how climate variability affects food production and food price dynamics, and how these interact with household food security. Because I work at NASA, my work involves finding new ways to use three decades of satellite observations of climate and environmental change. I use the observations to understand how future climate change is likely to affect the food system and food production across the world. 

How does climate change impact health and nutrition and food security in general?

There has been a lot of research on how climate change will affect food production and therefore food availability across the developing world. Food security, however, has four components – availability (whether food is available for a household), access (whether you can afford to purchase food), utilization (individual health that leads to nutritional status and welfare outcomes), and stability (consistent availability, access and food utilization through time). The literature has provided few conceptual frameworks that enable quantitative assessment of the impact of climate change across all four elements of food security. There is a lot of work to do to quantify these linkages so that we can assess the likely impact of climate change on health and nutrition for the most vulnerable.

You’re using remote sensing satellites to monitor weather. How does this technology help farmers make certain production decisions and help to promote global food security?

My work focuses on the poorest farmers in the poorest countries who have few choices they can make regarding how they produce food. These farmers have not had access to satellites or weather information due to lack of electricity, education, and adequately specialized information. In recent years, however, cell phones have transformed their access to information and networks. In response to this trend, I have developed new collaborations that seek to provide world-class remote sensing of weather anomalies and other environmental information directly to these smallholder farmers using text message systems. I am also collaborating with economists who are developing ‘index insurance’ that will provide a risk-transfer mechanism for these poor smallholder farmers. The idea of parametric or index insurance is to provide very low cost weather insurance that will provide a payout when drought or flood destroy crops across a wide area. To work effectively, these programs must deliver satellite data that are highly correlated with farmer’s yields, thus research is needed to make sure that multiple products are used to ensure both long time series and high resolution to create products that really work in a particular region.

With which organizations are you partnering to ensure that this data gets used appropriately and effectively?

I have worked with the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET) for the past 15 years. They fund a lot of science, and have processes where new scientific research and models are rapidly integrated into their monitoring system.  

For the index insurance work mentioned above, I collaborate with Daniel Osgood at Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society. He has an active program researching the best ways that index insurance can be implemented to really meet the needs of smallholder farmers.  

I work with Kiersten Johnson at ICF Macro International to bring together information on nutrition outcomes from the USAID Demographic and Health Survey information with satellite remote sensing. This new work seeks to develop quantitative connections between observed environmental change and nutrition outcomes in countries like Malawi and Nepal.

I have a pending proposal with Aboubacar Diaby, Ph.D., who works with AGRA International.  AGRA has a cell phone-based text message network system, which I will augment with satellite-derived weather and climate information if the proposal is funded.

I am also working with one of my colleagues here at NASA, Vanessa Escobar, on engaging with the re-insurance financial corporations in the U.K. through Lloyds of London and the University of Reading to increase the industry’s use of satellite data to identify and evaluate weather risk across multiple insurance sectors. Currently, these institutions use earth observation data in only the most limited way, despite the weather-related hazards they insure, but should have a big payout as we move forward.

These are just a few of the organizations I have collaborations with. I love working with people to ensure that satellite remote sensing data and science has real value to people across the world. 

You’ve discussed the importance of markets in linking food producers to food consumers. Is this data able to help advance our knowledge of trade networks?

A lot of my research focuses on using food price information to understand how markets function. A 2012 paper published in Global Environmental Change Journal explored the impact of global commodity price dynamics on local food prices and therefore food access. We also used satellite data to determine countries where local growing conditions were important determinants of local food prices. 

Unfortunately, information on trade in developing countries is very difficult to obtain and thus food price observations must be used to infer the impact of climate and weather on food trade. In order to do this really well, we need a very high density of observations of food prices over long periods. In the 1990s, FEWS NET collected hundreds of food prices in West, East and Southern Africa, but the effort was discontinued in the 2000s. After the food price crisis in 2008, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and FEWS NET are working to re-establish routine price observation networks, but have a long way to go until we can use them to really evaluate and monitor trade networks.  

I have a new book that will come out in March 2014 entitled Food Security, Food Prices and Climate Variability with Earthscan/Routledge Press that further explores these issues.