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Navigating the AI revolution in agriculture (I/II): a story of promise and paradox

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By Henry Gordon-Smith

· 6 min read

This is part one of a two-part series on the role of the AI revolution in reshaping agriculture. You can find part two here.

In the era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, few sectors remain untouched by technological advancement, and agriculture is no exception. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is reshaping agriculture with a level of precision and efficiency previously unimaginable. It's reinventing agricultural practices with efficiency results that we could only dream of a few years back.

Brace yourself for this - AI in the agriculture market is projected to skyrocket to a staggering $2.6 billion by 2025. But don't get too excited just yet! This revolution is a complex development with its fair share of challenges. In this edition, we're diving headfirst into the profound influence of AI on agriculture, sharing facts, figures, and real-life examples from my research. We're here to navigate through the exciting opportunities, the looming hurdles, and the thrilling prospects of the future. So buckle up, and let's explore this brave new world together.

Seeds of transformation

AI-driven efficiency and sustainability

The integration of AI in agriculture is heralding a new era of efficiency and sustainability. Leading the charge are companies like John Deere, who have harnessed autonomous machinery to increase productivity by 15% and reduce herbicide use by 90%. Their partnership with Blue River Technology has optimized planting patterns, revolutionizing traditional farming techniques. A big benefit is that AI-powered robots can work 24/7, increasing efficiency and reducing labor costs.

Trimble Inc.'s Connected Farm is another game-changer, utilizing GPS and big data to reduce fuel and seed costs by 20%. From precision agriculture to drone surveillance, innovative tools like DJI Agras T20 have enabled the spraying of 12 hectares per hour, reducing water usage by 50%. 

Water conservation is a global necessity, with companies like WiseConn and Netafim making significant strides. WiseConn's DropControl system has resulted in a 30% reduction in water usage, implementing AI across 50,000 acres of farmland. Netafim's drip irrigation, operating in 110 countries, has saved 40 billion gallons of water annually. 

Even Agritecture is using AI to help farmers. As climate change is threatening the iconic taste of beer, with Czech hops production facing particular vulnerabilities. In the Czech Republic, droughts in 2015 and 2018 caused 34% and 30% reductions in hops production respectively. Additionally, Alpha acid levels, crucial to hops characteristics, have shown fluctuations based on climate conditions. As these elements become more unstable, farmers' ability to produce consistently becomes increasingly challenging. The question arose: how to increase the drought resiliency of Czech hops farmers?

In 2021, a groundbreaking partnership was formed between Agritecture, Asahi, and Microsoft to address this challenge. Awarded a grant under Microsoft's 'AI for Earth' initiative, the trio set out to use artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning for climate-smart hop growing in the Czech Republic. Through precision agriculture, monitoring drought data, combining historical and real-time data, and employing Microsoft's tools like the Planetary Computer and Farmbeats, the collaboration aims to strengthen crop performance and resilience against climate change.

“Climate change is accelerating and Agritecture sees an urgent need for its ability to build great teams, select innovative technologies, and tackle large global agriculture challenges. The ‘For Hops’ project is an exciting first major precision agriculture project for Agritecture and we are looking forward to helping farmers in the Czech Republic and beyond adapt to climate change.” - Henry Gordon-Smith, CEO, Agritecture
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Harvesting hops in the Czech Republic the old-fashioned way with Microsoft's Andreas Fibiger

The proposed software solution leverages AI and machine learning to gather and interpret climate data, offering Czech hops farmers insights into historical climate data and real-time responses. With Agritecture's expertise, partner TensoAI's algorithms, and dedicated app development for Asahi and its suppliers, the project offers a comprehensive approach to help farmers understand their crops and manage water efficiently. The initiative not only secures the future for Czech hops farming but also represents a potential model for other agricultural regions vulnerable to climate change. The collaboration with Microsoft and Asahi marks a significant transition for Agritecture and a global stride toward adapting agriculture to climate change.

Data-driven insights and prediction

Think of Big Data as the pulsating heart, the lifeblood, if you will, of contemporary farming. It's the unseen oracle that guides our decisions by offering invaluable insights and accurate forecasts. For instance, IBM Watson has been crunching a decade's worth of weather data, and what's the outcome? A whopping 25% surge in crop yield! On the other side, we have SAP's Connected Agriculture, a whiz at creating real-time market pricing models. It's been a game-changer, streamlining the supply chain, and revving up efficiency like a well-oiled machine. 

But hey, that's not all. AI is also boldly venturing into the realm of early disease detection. These smart models can sniff out potential trouble with a mind-boggling accuracy rate of up to 98%! Just imagine the billions of dollars that could be saved from potential catastrophes, not to mention the livelihoods of farmers adapting to climate change. From digging deep into soil analysis to acting as an early warning system for diseases, AI is shifting the paradigm from a reactive to a proactive mode in agricultural management. 

Big data is revolutionizing the agricultural industry, with the global market for big data in agriculture expected to reach billions by 2027. Farms are becoming more digitized, collecting vast amounts of data on everything from soil quality to weather patterns. The ability to analyze and interpret these vast datasets through AI has the potential to transform agricultural practices.

"The future of agriculture is not about inputs, it's about information. The winners in agriculture will be those who can best acquire, manage, and utilize data." - Robert T. Fraley, Monsanto

Big data and AI have also become essential tools for enhancing crop quality and managing pests. An example is the previously announced collaboration between AeroFarms and Dell Technologies, utilizing IoT sensors and machine learning to monitor and analyze more than 130,000 data points every harvest cycle. In another case, a study in Brazil used satellite imagery and AI to detect and predict coffee leaf rust, resulting in targeted interventions and a significant reduction in disease spread.

The application of big data and AI in agriculture also supports environmental sustainability and climate resilience. A case study by The Nature Conservancy Conservancy in California showcased the utilization of remote sensing technology to analyze over a decade of landscape data. This analysis enabled precise conservation planning, promoting biodiversity and protecting against soil erosion. Moreover, big data aids in developing climate-smart agriculture, like the Climate Corporation's Climate FieldView platform, which analyzes over 150 million acres of farmland data to offer customized recommendations for sustainable farming. AI can also analyze soil data to determine the best crops to plant and the optimal time for planting, leading to higher yields and reduced waste.

The integration of big data and AI is not limited to developed agricultural regions; it has a global reach with enormous future prospects. In India, the AI-powered platform "CropIn" has impacted over 3 million acres, helping farmers make data-driven decisions to enhance productivity. In Africa, the start-up "UjuziKilimo" uses big data to provide smallholder farmers with precise agricultural insights. These global implementations showcase the potential of big data and AI in democratizing access to cutting-edge technology, enhancing food security, and paving the way for a new era in sustainable agriculture. The continued collaboration between tech companies, governments, and farming communities will be key to unlocking further potential.

This article is also published on the author's blog. illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Henry Gordon-Smith is a sustainability strategist focused on urban agriculture, water issues, and emerging technologies. Henry earned an MSc in Sustainability Management from Columbia University. In 2014, Henry launched the advisory firm Agritecture Consulting which has consulted on over 200 urban agriculture projects in over 40 countries.

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