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  1. Free, publicly-accessible full text available August 1, 2024
  2. Satellites reveal crop yield losses from nitrogen dioxide around the world. 
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  3. Abstract

    With climate change threatening agricultural productivity and global food demand increasing, it is important to better understand which farm management practices will maximize crop yields in various climatic conditions. To assess the effectiveness of agricultural practices, researchers often turn to randomized field experiments, which are reliable for identifying causal effects but are often limited in scope and therefore lack external validity. Recently, researchers have also leveraged large observational datasets from satellites and other sources, which can lead to conclusions biased by confounding variables or systematic measurement errors. Because experimental and observational datasets have complementary strengths, in this paper we propose a method that uses a combination of experimental and observational data in the same analysis. As a case study, we focus on the causal effect of crop rotation on corn (maize) and soybean yields in the Midwestern United States. We find that, in terms of root mean squared error, our hybrid method performs 13% better than using experimental data alone and 26% better than using the observational data alone in the task of predicting the effect of rotation on corn yield at held-out experimental sites. Further, the causal estimates based on our method suggest that benefits of crop rotations on corn yield are lower in years and locations with high temperatures whereas the benefits of crop rotations on soybean yield are higher in years and locations with high temperatures. In particular, we estimated that the benefit of rotation on corn yields (and soybean yields) was 0.85 t ha−1(0.24 t ha−1) on average for the top quintile of temperatures, 1.03 t ha−1(0.21 t ha−1) on average for the whole dataset, and 1.19 t ha−1(0.16 t ha−1) on average for the bottom quintile of temperatures. This association between temperatures and rotation benefits is consistent with the hypothesis that the benefit of the corn-soybean rotation on soybean yield is largely driven by pest pressure reductions while the benefit of the corn-soybean rotation on corn yields is largely driven by nitrogen availability.

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  4. In India, the second-largest sugarcane producing country in the world, accurate mapping of sugarcane land is a key to designing targeted agricultural policies. Such a map is not available, however, as it is challenging to reliably identify sugarcane areas using remote sensing due to sugarcane’s phenological characteristics, coupled with a range of cultivation periods for different varieties. To produce a modern sugarcane map for the Bhima Basin in central India, we utilized crowdsourced data and applied supervised machine learning (neural network) and unsupervised classification methods individually and in combination. We highlight four points. First, smartphone crowdsourced data can be used as an alternative ground truth for sugarcane mapping but requires careful correction of potential errors. Second, although the supervised machine learning method performs best for sugarcane mapping, the combined use of both classification methods improves sugarcane mapping precision at the cost of worsening sugarcane recall and missing some actual sugarcane area. Third, machine learning image classification using high-resolution satellite imagery showed significant potential for sugarcane mapping. Fourth, our best estimate of the sugarcane area in the Bhima Basin is twice that shown in government statistics. This study provides useful insights into sugarcane mapping that can improve the approaches taken in other regions. 
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  5. Accurate and comprehensive measurements of a range of sustainable development outcomes are fundamental inputs into both research and policy. We synthesize the growing literature that uses satellite imagery to understand these outcomes, with a focus on approaches that combine imagery with machine learning. We quantify the paucity of ground data on key human-related outcomes and the growing abundance and improving resolution (spatial, temporal, and spectral) of satellite imagery. We then review recent machine learning approaches to model-building in the context of scarce and noisy training data, highlighting how this noise often leads to incorrect assessment of model performance. We quantify recent model performance across multiple sustainable development domains, discuss research and policy applications, explore constraints to future progress, and highlight research directions for the field.

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