In recent years, the use of artificial intelligence (AI) has evoked fear, as things like facial recognition, social media algorithms, and job losses due to automation have been featured in their fair share of headlines. They will likely continue to be topics of national and global conversations as institutions, businesses, and the public grapple with these complex issues.
But that’s not everything there is to it. AI is also making more positive news in other areas, including agriculture and food distribution. AI has a place throughout the food development lifecycle, from planning to growing to harvesting to packaging to shipping. It can be used to determine the best use of land, optimize the nutrition in food, predict future weather conditions, and even address food insecurity.
Given that agriculture is a global multi-trillion-dollar industry that’s growing rapidly to keep pace with a rising population, the use of AI in this field has far-reaching implications. Here we explore some of the ways in which it can contribute.
AI can help farmers monitor soil and plants to optimize factors such as nutrition, moisture, and health. Knowing the state of plants before being able to recognize it through direct observation can help farmers adjust soil amendments, water, and lighting in indoor operations. It can also help them reduce pesticide use.
Also, AI-driven applications can identify the best place to plant certain crops based on factors like temperature, erosion, and soil quality to optimize production. This ability is just one more example of AI helping farmers to make better decisions.
With a burgeoning indoor farming trend, farmers have even more control over some of the factors mentioned above, especially weather and lighting. AI can be used to create specialized “crop recipes” that can speed up growth cycles and increase the number of harvests. AI-driven indoor farming has been shown to produce more food per acre and uses considerably less water than traditional (outdoor) farming.
Additionally, food grown indoors can help address issues like food deserts in urban areas. Food deserts are places with low access to healthy food, especially fresh produce. Such conditions can reduce life expectancy for citizens there. AI, such as crowdsourced apps, can be deployed to determine where these areas are.
Once identified, these locations are ideal places for indoor growing facilities, which can include vertical farms that spread up rather than out. These operations can make fresh produce available in food deserts and other locations throughout the year. The following video is a news story about how vertical farming works:
New Food Development
Researchers are using AI to increase the health of the soil and the nutritional value of food. For example, the same food crop grown in the same location year after year reduces the soil’s health and resilience. Additionally, species of food chosen for faster growth may yield lower nutritional content. AI systems can be used to identify ways to improve these factors. It can also find previously unknown nutritional benefits in plants.
AI is additionally being used to develop alternative proteins that can bring flavor, texture, and nutritional value to areas where meat is more expensive or where its development is damaging the planet. Alternative proteins include plant-based proteins, insects, lab-cultured meat, and proteins derived from fungi. In fact, as The World Economic Forum states, “over the last two years, we have seen sales of refrigerated plant-based meat grow 125%.”
The success of traditional (outdoor) farming operations depends largely on the weather, so knowing what the conditions are likely to be can help farmers better plan things like the right time to sow seeds. Various devices can use AI to help forecast the weather more accurately. They include handheld instruments, sensors, and weather stations.
These systems can predict regular weather patterns, such as temperature, precipitation, and sunlight level. They can also foresee potentially damaging disasters like tornadoes, hurricanes, and even lightning strikes.
AI-driven robots can replace farmworkers in controlling weeds and harvesting crops, saving on labor costs and increasing speed. One example is small robots designed to navigate through crops to perform specific actions such as harvesting or weed pulling. These devices can be programmed anew for different types of crops. Autonomous farm vehicles such as tractors perform similar tasks on a larger scale.
Self-driven drones can also be deployed to capture images to help monitor crop health and identify diseases. What’s more – they can be used to spray crops with needed chemicals.
With the world population expected to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050, hunger is an issue that will only get worse without significant intervention. Research analysis can be time-consuming and cumbersome for humans. With the help of AI, they can more easily learn from studies that have been performed and use the results to create meaningful programs.
AI can also help researchers to gather real-time data about price changes, weather conditions, and crop issues to predict developing food supply issues. This information can allow response teams to take proactive measures to deliver food from alternative sources if necessary.
Another problem related to food security that can be aided by AI is crop disease. A considerable number of crops are destroyed each year due to this issue. AI can be used to diagnose crop diseases more quickly and accurately, leading to proactive mitigation. This method can be preferable to human diagnosis, which may be subjective, as well as costly and time-consuming.
California Review Management calls “agricultural intelligence” the result of all this input from AI in the field. The term captures well the ability of farmers to run their operations more intelligently with greater knowledge of the factors that promote crop health, and the abilities to identify new food sources, prepare for potentially damaging storms and other threats, and to more accurately harvest and care for plants.
These capabilities offer benefits not only to farmers and others in the agriculture industry but to the world at large. As a result of this technology, people are becoming healthier and more productive. While questionable uses of AI continue to be used throughout the world, positive uses are on the rise as well and the agriculture sector is a perfect example of that.