USC Dornsife Spatial Sciences Institute Logo
USC Logo

GIS Mapping Aids Farm Biodiversity

The use of geographic information systems (GIS) is increasing rapidly as more industries are finding ways to use relevant data. One industry specifically that seems to be benefiting from GIS data is agriculture, as farmers use the information from the layered maps to make better decisions regarding biodiversity, the reduction of the need for pesticide application, and the monitoring of wildlife.

Geospatial information obtained through GIS includes satellite imagery and aerial photography, allowing farmers to view their land far differently than they do when they walk around the farm. The data also shows land changes and shifts over time, encouraging better planning and development.

Reducing Pesticide Application

A farmer spreads pesticides

One of the ways that GIS mapping has helped farmers is by reducing the need to apply pesticides as frequently. Organic grower, Javier Zamora, who owns JSM Organic Farms in Watsonville, California, is one example of this. Over the past five years, his farm has grown from 1.5 acres to 100 acres. One way that he has used GIS mapping is to track the health of the soil and monitor crop rotation. The most common crop on his farm is strawberries, but the growers fumigate the beds with pesticides to combat soil-borne fungal diseases.

As Zamora monitored this problem, he found that by diversifying his crops, or planting something other than strawberries in the same beds for several years after harvest, the number of pests and soil-borne problems are minimized. Following a crop rotation cycle and maintaining the health of the soil can lessen how much growers have to use pesticides on their crops, allowing them to keep the produce organic and reduce crop loss.

Other benefits may include reduction of toxins that impact the water supply, soil health, and members of rural communities. Some pesticides can also cause health problems among those working on the farm, so lowering the amount used could help keep workers healthier. However, in order to achieve this goal, growers must keep up with GIS data and track the best places to plant. Studies by ecologists and other scientists across the nation show the benefits of crop rotation, and the GIS mapping information can allow a grower to manage their fields more efficiently.

Phylogenetic Diversity

When studying GIS data, ecologists Greg Gilbert and Ingrid Parker found that plant communities that have higher concentrations of “related” plants, or phylogenetic diversity, have lower disease levels overall. In an article published in an issue of the Nature journal, however, Gilbert and Parker discussed the challenge of finding plots large enough to test their hypotheses. In fact, much of the data was produced on small research plots, which made some growers wonder how well the results would translate to larger farms.

In order to test the theories, another ecologist, David Gonthier, started collaborating with large-scale farmers throughout northern California, including Zamora, the grower in Watsonville. When examining the GIS mapping, Gonthier looked at the scale of the farm with color-coded data based on the genetic distance from one crop to a strawberry crop. He also developed visual tools and resources to help farmers better understand how to manage adaptation and reduce pests based on phylogenetic diversity of crops.

Large-Scale Environmental Problem Solving

In addition to managing pests within crops, GIS data can also aid in solving a variety of other environmental problems faced by growers. Understanding the impacts of changing climate patterns and certain weather shifts based on GIS mapping can also make it easier to manage rising and lowering temperatures and adjustments to precipitation levels over the changing seasons. Watching the maps can help farmers understand the processes that take place across their land, from how to attract more pollinators to how plants take in nutrients for better growth.

Increasing Crop Yield

Crop field

On a global scale, GIS mapping can also help growers around the world. A non-profit organization based out of Malawi used data from GIS to improve farming practices and create more sustainable methods that yield higher volumes of crops. Nearly 80 percent of Malawi residents are smallholder farmers, and those farmers depend heavily on rainfall and the small amount of space available to grow crops. These factors often result in growers producing only enough maize to feed their families. The need for improved farming practices in this area of the world was very important.

Without much access to technology in this remote country, farmers faced serious limitations. Other factors included loss of trees, depletion of nutrients in the soil, and other impacts on the environment in the area. The goal of the non-profit organization that helped growers in Malawi was to restore natural capital among farmers while increasing crop production.

Another aim was to use GIS data to look at climate change over the recent months and years and develop crops and land that would resist these shifts while reducing greenhouse gas emissions as much as possible. When planting the indigenous Faidherbia albida tree in various fields, growers found that this “magic tree” repairs nitrogen found in soil and provides water for livestock during drought conditions. It also keeps its leaves throughout the winter, offering protective shade to maintain the soil’s health.

These advancements in Malawi, Northern California, and other parts of the world show the critical importance of GIS technology in the agricultural industry. Through farm biodiversity, growers can reduce dependence on pesticides and potentially increase crop yields throughout the harvest seasons. With the rapid growth of the GIS field, coming in at an estimated 11.4 percent increase by 2020, based on data from P&S Market Research, many people are looking to pursue advanced degrees in this area of technology. With 390 monthly searches taking place, it seems that the rapidly growing industry is generating a lot of interest.

If you are interested in this industry and its applications to farming, consider advancing your education and therefore your career options. The Geographic Information Science & Technology Graduate Programs, offered by the Spatial Sciences Institute within the University of Southern California Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, can help you achieve your goals of working in the agricultural field and advancing farm biodiversity for the better of your community and the world.