Celebrating 25 years of agricultural resources monitoring

By Herman Eerens 27 November 2017

The JRC-MARS unit (Monitoring  Agricultural ResourceS) develops methods, tools and systems to monitor agricultural evolutions (areas and yields) in Europe and the major food producing areas around the world.

Celebrating its 25th anniversary, we highlight the goals and achievements of this MARS programme, and the broader role of agricultural monitoring to support global food security. Since 2000, VITO delivers remote sensing data which contribute to better crop yield forecasts.

Agriculture in the EU & the MARS Project

Given the post-war food scarcities, agriculture has always been a major focal point of the European Union. DG-AGRI, the European Ministry or “Directorate General” (DG) of Agriculture, is responsible for the definition and realization of a Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) amongst all the EU Member States.To take adequate and fair decisions, DG-AGRI needs reliable agro-statistics, acquired in a uniform and timely way over the different EU member states.

To acquire the necessary agro-statistics, the EU has started the MARS project in 1988, under supervision of the Joint Research Centre (DG-JRC) in Ispra, Italy. It addresses different focal points:

  • Crop mapping and area estimation:
    This action aims to determine the per-annual areas of the major crops within the EU.
  • Pre-harvest monitoring of the crop state and yield estimation:
    Within-season yield estimates are of crucial importance for the world trade of food commodities. JRC-MARS provides this information on a European or global scale, via a combination of different resources (weather data, crop growth modelling, remote sensing, etc.) and distributes it to the major stakeholders around the world.
  • Derived actions:
    The previous results (areas, yields) are used to deal with other issues, such as crop insurances and the impact of climate change.
Although VITO is active in the above three domains, within the so-called MARSOP contracts we only deliver remote sensing data for the second activity. For this pre-harvest monitoring  and yield estimation action, we collaborate with Meteo-Group (Germany) and Alterra (The Netherlands).



The core of the JRC-MARS yield forecasting system is based on “models”: crop growth models or statistical methods. Both have the tendency to narrow down on the “normal behaviour”, but they often fail in the case of exceptional events. According to JRC, the “objective observations” of remote sensing often improve the final yield estimates.

For the MARS-project, we collect imagery from different satellites to generate:
  • Ten-daily composite images (smoothed to remove cloud noise)
  • Vegetation indices such as NDVI, fAPAR, fCOVER and LAI
  • Model based indices (integrating meteorological data), such as DMP
  • Long Term Statistics and anomalies to show regions with growth retardation
  • Databases with Regional Unmixed Means of the variables
  • ISO-cluster maps, showing regions with similar behaviour
JRC-MARS compiles all the incoming  information (weather, remote sensing, crop growth modelling) into final yield estimates (per crop and region) and regularly communicates the resulting statistics via agro-meteorological bulletins for Europe and other regions in the world

JRC MARS Bulletin September 2017 (Vol. 25 No 9)


Over the years, at VITO the MARS-contracts have always stimulated the development of new approaches, for instance for
  • The processing of new satellites such as MODIS, METOP and MSG
  • Data smoothing
  • Extraction of phenological parameters (start/end of season)
  • Image classification
  • Yield estimation via similarity analysis
  • The development of new software(GLIMPSE and SPIRITS)
  • ...
In this way, the MARS project paved the way for many other projects and collaborations.


Besides the various pre-processing workflows which upgrade the “raw” satellite registrations into 10-daily composites (S10), two software packages have been developed with focus on the further extraction of useful information from time series of such S10 composites.

    FromFrom the very beginning (2000), it was attempted to program all MARSOP procedures in a most generic way. That means: operational for any sensor, resolution, indicator, etc. Over the years this has resulted in a set of ANSI-C programs called GLIMPSE, all working in Command Line mode, which facilitates their incorporation into “scripts” and the setup of automated processing workflows. Today, GLIMPSE is also used in many other projects  by JRC and VITO. 
    SPIRITS is a JAVA-based software which allows to run the core of the GLIMPSE modules in a standard Windows environment. But it also provides a wealth of additional facilities, related to format conversions, database management, map generation, etc. SPIRITS has been developed on behalf of JRC-MARS. It is freely available and the latest version can always be downloaded from http://spirits.jrc.ec.europa.eu/. SPIRITS is used around the world to prepare agro-meteorological bulletins.
Find out more about the MARS programme, its history, goals and achievements in a special summary dedicated to its 25th 
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Herman Eerens
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Herman Eerens
Senior R&D Professional
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