Ioannis Athanasiadis bio photo

Ioannis Athanasiadis

Professor of Artificial Intelligence
Geo-information Science and Remote Sensing Lab
Wageningen University & Research

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Machine learning for large-scale crop yield forecasting

D.Paudel, H. Boogaard, A. de Wit, S.Janssen, S. Osinga, C. Pylianidis, I. N.Athanasiadis


Many studies have applied machine learning to crop yield prediction with a focus on specific case studies. The data and methods they used may not be transferable to other crops and locations. On the other hand, operational large-scale systems, such as the European Commission’s MARS Crop Yield Forecasting System (MCYFS), do not use machine learning. Machine learning is a promising method especially when large amounts of data are being collected and published. We combined agronomic principles of crop modeling with machine learning to build a machine learning baseline for large-scale crop yield forecasting. The baseline is a workflow emphasizing correctness, modularity and reusability. For correctness, we focused on designing explainable predictors or features (in relation to crop growth and development) and applying machine learning without information leakage. We created features using crop simulation outputs and weather, remote sensing and soil data from the MCYFS database. We emphasized a modular and reusable workflow to support different crops and countries with small configuration changes. The workflow can be used to run repeatable experiments (e.g. early season or end of season predictions) using standard input data to obtain reproducible results. The results serve as a starting point for further optimizations. In our case studies, we predicted yield at regional level for five crops (soft wheat, spring barley, sunflower, sugar beet, potatoes) and three countries (the Netherlands (NL), Germany (DE), France (FR)). We compared the performance with a simple method with no prediction skill, which either predicted a linear yield trend or the average of the training set. We also aggregated the predictions to the national level and compared with past MCYFS forecasts. The normalized RMSE (NRMSE) for early season predictions (30 days after planting) were comparable for NL (all crops), DE (all except soft wheat) and FR (soft wheat, spring barley, sunflower). For example, NRMSE was 7.87 for soft wheat (NL) (6.32 for MCYFS) and 8.21 for sugar beet (DE) (8.79 for MCYFS). In contrast, NRMSEs for soft wheat (DE), sugar beet (FR) and potatoes (FR) were twice as much compared to MCYFS. NRMSEs for end of season were still comparable to MCYFS for NL, but worse for DE and FR. The baseline can be improved by adding new data sources, designing more predictive features and evaluating different machine learning algorithms. The baseline will motivate the use of machine learning in large-scale crop yield forecasting.

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D.Paudel, H. Boogaard, A. de Wit, S.Janssen, S. Osinga, C. Pylianidis, I. N.Athanasiadis, Machine learning for large-scale crop yield forecasting, Agricultural Systems, 187:103016, 2021, doi:10.1016/j.agsy.2020.103016.

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