India’s cotton fields are now being observed from space

By | June 7, 2023

The world’s first satellite-monitored, AI-driven certification scheme for organic cotton went into space on Tuesday. Launched by the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), the European Space Agency and German fusion agency Marple are collaborating on the project that will observe Indian cotton fields and monitor their organic bona fides.

The news comes as India’s organic cotton sector recovers after GOTS uncovered evidence of fraud in 2020 that sent shockwaves across the sector and forced the organic organization to respond to a New York Times complaint. Last fall, GOTS tightened requirements for cotton gins to become certified and protect against “potential fraud.”

“Human behavior changes when we know there is a camera watching, and I think that will already reduce some malicious intent from bad actors,” GOTS project manager Jeffrey Thimm told Sourcing Journal. “But I think more what it will do – and the main thing we are looking for – is identify the fields where the farmers are almost organic… and invite these farmers into the organic network.”

Thimm said the images taken are from the polar-orbiting Sentinel Satellite 2 and the snapshots of vegetative growth, water, moisture and soil activity, among other factors, are compared to previously known data collected on the Earth.

A cotton factory in India will have its cotton crops monitored by satellite monitoring to determine if they meet organic certification criteria.

Courtesy of GOTS

When used in tandem with algorithms digested by artificial intelligence, global organizations can get a real sense of the amount of organic versus non-organic cotton grown in India, the world’s fourth largest cotton producer where farms are typically small and farmers difficult to access.

“But if we have remote monitoring that can say, ‘OK, here in this area all these fields appear to be organic,’ then we can partner with field-level partners to essentially start groups of farmers or invite these farmers in farmer groups to increase the amount of organic cotton that is grown and available to the supply chain,” said Thimm. “Also, brands are increasingly demanding organic products and there is not enough to meet the demand. With that gap between supply and demand, there’s also an opportunity for fraud; so if we can close that gap, and by increasing supply, then there should be less fraud.”

Thimm said that outside of outright fraud, the main reason for the confusion between which farms are organic and which are not is unintentional contamination when the winds blow genetically modified organisms from a non-organic farm to a certified one.

“A lot of the fraud actually happens with merchants, so it’s more business people who do it rather than farmers because they have very little ability to actually cheat the system as such,” Thimm said. “Also, synthetic inputs are quite expensive and using organic methods is part of a traditional food system. They are growing cotton as a cash crop to support their food system.”

The project should produce its first results by the end of 2023.

“It is an honor and very exciting to be a partner in this ESA demonstration project, and it lives up to our claim to be pioneers serving the sustainable textile sector to enable continuous improvement,” said Claudia Kersten, managing director of GOTS. “Technologies like this will mark a turning point in terms of the integrity and promotion opportunities of organic cotton.”

Guillaume Prigent, head of business development and partnerships for the European Space Agency, expressed similar enthusiasm for the project.

“This highlights how space solutions can have a positive impact on the world and is the type of innovation that ESA supports through its business applications and space solutions programme,” he said.

When India’s project is completed, Thimm said he would like to see GOTS satellites look at other cotton-producing regions of the world, including Turkey and East and West Africa.

The technology and concept already proved successful in 2021, when GOTS, ESA and Marple joined forces to develop the Cotton Cultivation Remote Assessment software and used it to monitor Uzbekistan’s cotton fields.

A satellite image view of cotton fields in Uzbekistan remotely taken using Marple’s CoCuRA technology in 2022.

Marple, contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data processed by Sentinel Hub

“That feat showed how trained AI could accurately differentiate cotton fields from other crops using only satellite imagery and sensor data, as well as whether the cotton fields were grown organically,” GOTS said. in a press release.

Thimm said the next step could also involve monitoring several crops that also produce fibers for textiles.

“We may also look at other fibers and not just whether they are organic or not, but in terms of remote viewing and remote monitoring there is a lot to be said for [tracking] climate impact and greenhouse gas emissions,” Thimm said.

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