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Food Security

Remote Sensing to assess protein content in wheat - the secret to a perfect slice of bread

Publication date: 01-11-2023, Read time: 4 min

Embraced by fitness enthusiasts, proteins have claimed the spotlight in the field of health and nutrition during the last decade. Proteins are macronutrients, essential for the growth, maintenance and repair of tissues of the human body.  

We can all name foods with high amounts of protein, such as tofu, broccoli or chicken. However, it's not commonly known that foods such as yoghurt and bread also contain small amounts of protein. In fact, consuming bread made of wheat grains with higher protein content can contribute to reaching the protein requirements of our bodies and promoting overall health.  

The importance of protein in wheat grains 

An elevated protein content in wheat grains indicates a better balance of other essential nutrients such as vitamins and minerals, making the wheat more nutritious. For example, if wheat grains have a high protein content, there is a very high chance that those grains will also have a high zinc content.  

Additionally, the protein content in wheat grains influences the quality and properties of baked products. Bakers are well aware of that; different wheat varieties with protein contents are suitable for different baked goods. Bread-making requires wheat with a higher protein content, while cakes require wheat flour with a low protein content. For these reasons, the food industry and wheat farmers are very interested in measuring the protein content of their wheat grains.  

From the labs to space 

Measuring protein content in wheat grains is usually done in laboratories with a typical chemistry-based analysis. These analyses require taking individual grain samples from across the wheat field and analysingthem in a laboratory. This process provides information on a very specific moment when the samples were taken. It is a costly, complex activity to replicate throughout the seasons.  

However, scientists are investigating a cost-effective, fast alternative to measure protein content in wheat fields all around the world. This method utilizes hyperspectral satellites. These satellites capture a wide range of spectral bands with their sensors. The narrow spectral bands provide detailed information about the biochemical composition of crops, including protein content.  

Although the hyperspectral-based measurements are not yet as accurate as measurements as those performed in a lab, they can be conducted remotely on a large scale, and over extended periods of time. Using this remote sensing data, scientists can detect potential deficiencies in the protein content of wheat grains worldwide, in a consistent and timely manner. 

This novel method simplifies the monitoring process and can assist farmers in taking timely interventions against nutrient deficiencies. By providing additional fertilizers to the crops at the right time, the risk of protein deficiencies in crops is significantly reduced. Remote sensing can therefore contribute to the production of nutritious slices of bread, promoting a healthier and more sustainable food system. 

What do we do at ITC?

The EO4Nutri project aims to estimate and predict crop nutrients with remote sensing data and technologies. EO4Nutri is funded by the European Space Agency, and developed by the ITC Faculty in partnership with the National Research Council of Italy – Institute for Electromagnetic Sensing of Environment (CNR-IREA), University of Milano-Bicocca, Rothamsted Research and Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. 

Food Security Remote Sensing Spatial Data Science
Last edited: 07-05-2024

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