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Satellite data could soon help predict and manage food shortages in Africa, with the help of a new model developed by NASA.

Molly Brown, from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Centre, has developed a model that combines remotely-sensed crop data with grain prices to predict changes in food prices in the future.

"We hope that the model can directly benefit small and medium sized traders and businessmen in the region once it becomes operational," Brown told SciDev.Net.

Brown tested the model on historical data from West Africa. NASA satellites sense the 'greenness' of vegetation, giving an idea of the amount of rainfall and hence the amount of grain the crops will produce.

These satellite measurements are then combined with spatial maps of millet prices, and coupled with estimates of vegetation data one to four months in the future.

The software is still being developed, but Brown hopes to produce a portable version of the model in the next few years.

Brown says she was inspired to create the new method while working in Niger, a region often affected by drought. Farmers here can grow only a few drought-resistant crops, and so when a food crisis happens they are forced to buy grain at very high prices.

"With this new study, for the first time we can leverage satellite observations of crop production to create a more accurate price model that will help humanitarian aid organisations and other decision makers predict how much food will be available and what its cost will be as a result," said Brown.

The idea is that aid agencies can then provide the right amounts of food to keep prices steady.

But Vanessa Rubin, Africa hunger advisor for CARE International UK, an aid agency working in Niger, says it is important to recognise that food production is not the only factor determining market prices.

"The closure of regional trade borders in 2005 in Niger is commonly cited as a major contributing factor to the wild market fluctuations that escalated grain prices out of the reach of millions," she told SciDev.Net.

She also says that stable markets do not necessarily guarantee food security.

"Production and market prices are just one piece of the drought puzzle; drought is just one piece of the food security puzzle; and food security is just one piece of the vulnerability puzzle."

The NASA study will be published early next year in the journal Land Economics.