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Satellite-gathered data on weather, crops and environmental damage will be crucial in avoiding world famine in the 21st century, an Ohio congressman said Saturday in urging support for U.S. Earth-observation programs.

Rep. Tony Hall, D-Ohio, said satellites "are basic tools for humanity in the search for solutions to hunger." But, according to a report he released on existing and future remote sensing capacities of Earth satellites, funding for the primary U.S. satellite program, Landsat, is uncertain at best.Hall said the study, "Satellite Technology and World Food Security," "provides clear evidence that any loss of our satellite capability will directly affect our ability to avert famine.

"This report makes clear the crucial role of the U.S. satellite Landsat in monitoring food production. The food security community has not spoken loudly enough in support of Landsat as Congress debated its precarious future."

Hall, who is chairman of the House Select Committee on Hunger, issued the Congressional Research Service study in conjunction with World Food Day, which takes place Monday. The study had been requested by Rep. Mickey Leland, D-Texas, the committee's former chairman who died in a plane crash in Africa.

The study said the world's population could nearly triple to 14 billion in the next century. And with satellites playing a front-line role in helping predict weather, crop failure and eventual famine, the United States must decide whether it will continue building and operating satellites such as Landsat or rely more heavily on foreign data, the report said.

To monitor agricultural and environmental conditions, the United States primarily uses data from civilian polar orbiting satellites and from the Landsat program, which has two aging satellites in orbit and a replacement under construction.

United Nations world food groups use data from U.S., European Space Agency, French, Japanese and the Soviet satellites.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration plans a Mission to Planet Earth program in the 1990s that will use satellites to study the Earth's natural systems. But the plan could cost $15 billion to $30 billion over a 20-year period, and no budget is yet available, the report said.