What is precision agriculture? How can the use of drone technology, information services and artificial intelligence assist farmers in maximizing their productivity while emphasizing sustainability?
The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International breaks down precision agriculture into two components: remote sensing and precision application. Remote sensors are set up throughout a given area to track the health of plants and water, record growth rate and resource usage, and scan for potential health concerns. This substantial accumulation of data allows farmers to selectively use (i.e., precisely apply) the exact amount of nutrients, resources, or pesticides necessary for their fields.
Family farms, such as the McPheeters in Nebraska, are able to survive with a fraction of their historical labor force due to the application of sensor technology and surveillance drones. With 3,000 acres of row crops (mostly corn for ethanol or Fritos) that normally took 40 people and a handful of families, this small-scale operation employs just 5 workers through the usage of this new technology.
To that end, the World Food Programme — the food assistance branch of the United Nations — underscores the significance of improved access to and quality of data as the foundation for any impactful initiative on malnutrition, food security, or food access.
The Food and Agriculture Organization focuses on solutions to transform our food supply chains, resource economies and systems of production and distribution to a more food secure reality for its 194 member countries. "Transforming our food systems requires innovative solutions to ensure food security and nutrition for all," said FAO Director-General QU Dongyu. "At FAO, together with the development of AI tools, we work towards establishing the International Platform for Digital Food and Agriculture — an inclusive multi-stakeholder forum for identifying and discussing the potential benefits and risks of digitalization of the food and agricultural sectors," he added. These efforts not only challenge the mainstream, international food apparatus, but also provide the chance to bridge technological inequities between the Global North and Global South. That being said, 6 billion people are without wide bandwidth data transmission today, 4 billion without internet, 2 billion without mobile phones, and 400 million people are without a digital signal.
In the spirit of revitalizing international cooperation for lofty goals, the Rome Call for Artificial Intelligence (AI) Ethics is a multi-industry, private-public pledge to utilize artificial intelligence to harness the power of Big Data in solving food insecurity, poverty and starvation. The FAO Director-General and Italy's Minister for Technological Innovation and Digitalization, Paola Pisano, coordinated between global leaders in technology and food production (Microsoft and IBM) in signing the "Rome Call for AI Ethics" in a ceremony presided by Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, President of the Pontifical Academy for Life and endorsed by Pope Francis himself.
There is some skepticism, however, in the efficacy of technology to be the end-all, be-all solution to growing food demand and consumption. Jonah Kolb, vice president at farmland management group Moore & Warner, and Arne Duss, the founder and CEO of HighPath Consulting, highlighted several areas of concern for the application of AgTech into common practice:
- Application of yield-enhancing technology is impractical considering that most U.S. farms are owned by their operators (family farms).
- There is scarce interest in changing farm practice amongst U.S. farmers, 62% of which are near their retirement age.
- Opportunities for technological applications are limited in the U.S., which only has one growing season.
Regardless, precision agriculture provides a unique opportunity to correct unsustainable agricultural practices and norms. This form of agriculture may exacerbate the loss in farm jobs and pose issues for laborers without the means to adapt to this technology. More than just providing technical solutions, ethically-applied artificial intelligence can allow for a localized food system that enables small-scale production in the spirit of holism rather than the status quo by prioritizing Big Agriculture and the industrial agricultural complex.