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Farm researchers in Hokkaido are trying to improve rice cultivation through satellite photographs that analyze the quality of rice plants, according to researchers.

The researchers plan to start using a new satellite from U.S. firm Orbital Imaging Corp. in July with the hope of collecting more accurate data on plants. The new satellite will be equipped with sensors capable of distinguishing 200 wavelength ranges.

According to the researchers, high-resolution satellite photos can determine the precise hues of the leaves of rice plants, which in turn can provide key information on how much protein is in each plant.

The taste of rice generally deteriorates if it contains too much protein. To prevent this, farmers need to ensure that rice plants do not absorb too much nitrogen.

When the plants absorb excess nitrogen, they generate more chlorophyll, which makes their leaves greener and results in higher protein levels. This leads to a drop in the quality of the cooked rice, which hardens when it cools, according to the scientists.

The satellite photos can provide timely and effective data to identify and recognize these changes, the researchers said, adding that the method is less costly than conducting similar tests at ground level.

Once problems are identified, farmers can take steps such as reducing the amount of fertilizer used. These measures could help pave the way for bulk shipments to the restaurant industry, which prefers rice of uniform quality, the researchers added.

While Hokkaido rice is cheaper because of reduced large-scale farming costs in the region, it is generally thought to be of low quality.

Researchers in Hokkaido began analyzing crops through satellite photos in 1998 and have already passed on information to farmers that has helped improve rice cultivation.

Last year, the researchers used satellite photos to devise a protein-content distribution map covering some 80,000 hectares of rice-cropping area of the total 135,000 hectares in Hokkaido.

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