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Technology used for gazing into space could help solve the world’s food crisis

Professor Sarah Bridle is Professor of Astrophysics in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Manchester and a leading expert on image analysis in astronomy. She also leads the STFC Food Network. Here she explains why her expertise in astronomy, physics and mapping the universe can contribute to solving some of the world’s most pressing food-related issues such as shortages, pest-control and climate change.

Prof Bridle says: “Food contributes over 20% of greenhouse gas emissions and will likely be the main way most people experience climate change. As a planet, we need to produce safe and nutritious food in a sustainable way without depleting natural resources, and ensure the accessibility and resilience of food supply.”

But how can astrophysicists help sovle such problems? She explains: “We can play a major role in helping to address these challenges, by bringing access and expertise from across multiple disciplines such as big data and precision instrumentation expertise from fundamental research in astro, particle and nuclear physics.

“For example, in my astronomy research I analyse images of galaxies from multiple observations of large areas of sky taken at different light wavelengths from optical through to infra-red. I’m now using the same tools to observe fields of wheat and look for signs of weed infestation.

“I see strong parallels between estimating the distance to galaxies, crucial to measuring the nature of dark energy, and quantifying the level of disease in a crop, crucial to timely intervention to increase crop yield.


I see strong parallels between estimating the distance to galaxies and quantifying the level of disease in a crop.
Professor Sarah Bridle

And the comparisons don’t stop there. Many of the same issues affect both astronomy and the earth observation data used in food research. For example when viewing a supernova or looking at how pests could effect a crop yield.

Prof Bridle adds: “Detection of exploding type 1a supernovae are used to measure the expansion rate of the universe but are plagued with missing data problems due to cloud cover - the image processing problem looks very similar to the problem of detecting the outbreak of a pest. In astronomy we routinely use supercomputers to carry out these analyses over a large fraction of the sky, at a very similar resolution to modern earth observation data. Now we aim to use the same kind of technology to monitor and predict pest outbreaks for crops.”

However, some physicists don’t believe this kind of research is compatable, something Prof Bridle aims to change: “An editorial piece in Physics World last year ended with ‘…Particle theorists achieve many things, but tackling the world’s obesity crisis is not something they can ever hope to address’, I disagree. I think we’re going to be surprised at the new connections that get made.

“I’m still passionate about astronomy but as I started to think more about the future of our planet, I decided to diversify my research. I’ve been amazed at how many of the skills I developed from doing astronomy research are transferrable. This is a fantastic opportunity to encourage more people to think about how their expertise can be transferred, and to make a contribution to food research and industry.”

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