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

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By Henry Gordon-Smith

· 8 min read

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

The shadows of the AI revolution

Job displacement and skill gap

The shadows of the AI revolution are complex, affecting regions like the American Midwest, where automation has resulted in a 5-10% decline in agricultural employment. In Ohio alone, over 2,000 agricultural jobs were lost between 2015 and 2020. Some experts argue that AI could lead to job losses in the agricultural sector.

Figure 2. Graph on how agricultural labor faces some of the greatest losses from AI and automation

graph on how Agricultural Labor faces some of the greatest losses from AI and Automation

India's technological modernization has led to a 50% increase in demand for tech-savvy farm workers, leaving many traditional farmers behind. Reskilling initiatives and policies are necessary to bridge this gap, with programs like Microsoft's Project Sangam aiming to educate over 10,000 farmers by 2025. Agritecture continues to work on this problem with its work in the Middle East on filling the skilled labor gap in climate-smart agriculture.

Japan's shift towards robotics in farming has required a transformation in agricultural education, equipping the next generation with the skills to navigate a technological landscape. The balance between technological advancement and workforce adaptation is a complex dance requiring thoughtful choreography.

Ethical considerations and data privacy

Ethical dilemmas are also surfacing, with Europe's GDPR raising questions about data ownership in agriculture. Surveys reveal that 80% of European farmers have expressed concern over data privacy, leading to increased regulations in countries like France and Germany.

"The use of AI in agriculture is not without controversy. There are concerns about data privacy, ownership, and the potential for AI to exacerbate existing inequalities in the industry." - Karen Levy, Cornell University

China's AI guidelines are pioneering efforts to protect farmer rights, setting an example for ethical conduct. Balancing technology with tradition is another concern, as indigenous farming practices in regions like Sub-Saharan Africa risk being lost. Organizations like FAO are working on integrating traditional knowledge with modern techniques.

High costs and accessibility

Controversies surrounding the implementation of AI in agriculture are growing, as the intersection between technology and traditional farming practices raises complex issues. Critics argue that the rapid deployment of AI, driven by large corporations, could marginalize small and medium-sized farmers who cannot afford the necessary technology, leading to increased inequality within the agricultural sector. Concerns over data privacy have also arisen, as questions about who owns and controls the vast amounts of farm data collected by AI systems remain unresolved. Ethical considerations, such as potential biases in algorithms that might favor certain crops or farming methods to the detriment of biodiversity, add another layer of complexity. These controversies underscore the need for transparent, inclusive, and regulated adoption of AI in agriculture, where all stakeholders' interests are considered and safeguarded.

There are concerns about the potential for AI to exacerbate existing inequalities in the food system. The financial barriers to integrating AI into farming can also be daunting, with costs sometimes exceeding $250,000. In Africa, where 70% of small-scale farmers have little access to modern AI technologies, this is a significant barrier. Digital platforms and government-led initiatives in regions like Latin America are essential to bridge the technology gap and democratize access. 

Overdependence on AI has its downsides

The widespread adoption of AI in agriculture also brings significant risks, including increased vulnerability to cyberattacks and overreliance on algorithm-driven decisions. A failure in AI systems, whether through technical glitches or malicious hacking, could result in catastrophic crop losses or mismanagement of resources. Furthermore, a bias in data or flawed algorithms might lead to incorrect decisions, exacerbating inequalities and possibly harming the environment. The concentration of technological power in the hands of a few large corporations also raises concerns about monopolistic control and reduced competition. To navigate these challenges, a robust regulatory framework, constant vigilance, and a multifaceted approach to risk management will be essential in ensuring that the benefits of AI in agriculture are realized without compromising security, ethics, or social equity.

"AI is not a silver bullet for agriculture. It's a tool that needs to be used in conjunction with other technologies and practices to achieve sustainable and equitable outcomes." - Michael F. Gorman, Univeristy of Dayton, Ohio

Cultivating a brighter future with AI

Public-private partnerships

Public and private partnerships in AI and agriculture are emerging as vital collaborative efforts to drive innovation and sustainable growth in the sector. These partnerships often combine the resources, expertise, and networks of governments, academic institutions, technology companies, and agricultural organizations to develop and deploy AI solutions tailored to specific agricultural challenges. For instance, the collaboration between the USDA and Microsoft on the FarmBeats project is aimed at developing data-driven farming practices through AI and IoT technologies. Similarly, in many developing countries, partnerships between tech startups, NGOs, and governmental bodies are unlocking AI-driven insights for smallholder farmers. These collaborations help bridge gaps in funding, technology, and knowledge, fostering a more inclusive and effective approach to modernizing agriculture. They also facilitate the alignment of commercial interests with societal goals such as food security, environmental sustainability, and rural development.

The EU's Horizon 2020 program stands out as a prime example of large-scale efforts driving continental and national innovation in the intersection of AI and agriculture. With a substantial €4 billion allocation, the Horizon 2020 program has enabled an ambitious push for research, technological development, and innovation, focusing on AI-driven solutions to address sustainable agriculture, food security, and climate adaptation within Europe. Collaboration between member states, research institutions, and private entities has been instrumental in fostering creativity and accelerating progress.

These initiatives reflect a strategic commitment to harnessing AI as a transformative tool for modern agriculture. They also showcase how public investment can catalyze private participation, shaping a vibrant ecosystem for innovation, commercialization, and broader societal benefit. The synergy between public policy objectives and private sector dynamism in these programs offers a model for how government-led initiatives can stimulate technological advancement, economic growth, and social well-being in agriculture and beyond.

However, these efforts cannot exist in a vacuum. To truly make strides in AI adoption in agriculture, we need to see a collective push from myriad stakeholders - from government bodies, researchers, tech companies, to individual farmers. Let's delve deeper into the current role of AI in agriculture and the potential future applications that could revolutionize this age-old industry. 

Education and training

As the application of AI in agriculture continues to expand, there is increasing recognition of the need for more comprehensive education and training programs to equip farmers and agricultural professionals with the skills required to navigate the evolving AI landscape. Initiatives like Microsoft’s FarmBeats, in collaboration with universities like Purdue, have taken significant strides in this direction, providing hands-on training and support to over 5,000 farmers.

Beyond immediate training, agricultural universities and colleges worldwide are integrating AI, data science, and related technologies into their curriculum. This fosters a new generation of tech-savvy agricultural professionals who are not only proficient in traditional farming practices but are also equipped to leverage AI-driven tools for enhanced productivity and sustainability. Governmental bodies, industry leaders, and educational institutions are beginning to recognize that bridging the knowledge gap is critical for the democratization of AI in agriculture.

Tailored educational programs, online platforms, workshops, and community outreach are being employed to ensure that knowledge is accessible to farmers of all scales, including those in underserved or rural areas. Collaborative efforts between the public and private sectors are seen as key to achieving this goal, and further investments will likely be needed to create a globally competitive workforce that can harness the full potential of AI to meet the diverse and growing demands of modern agriculture.

Ethical guidelines and regulations

Across the globe, governments are recognizing the potential impact of AI on the agricultural sector and are consequently establishing regulations and ethical guidelines. These are designed to foster innovation, promote sustainability, and ensure social justice in the application of AI in agriculture. Countries such as the United States and Japan are leading the way in this regard. 

We need a shared vision of AI for agriculture 

The integration of AI in agriculture is a complex, multifaceted journey filled with opportunities, challenges, ethical dilemmas, and transformation. By exploring diverse perspectives, detailed case studies, and comprehensive facts and figures, we have traversed an intricate landscape.

This analysis is not merely a research exercise but a call to action for all stakeholders to collaboratively cultivate a future where technology and humanity thrive in harmony. The seeds of transformation are planted, and the harvest promises to be rich in innovation, wisdom, and global collaboration. Overall, we need to ask ourselves what we want for the future of agriculture and develop a shared vision for how AI will help us to achieve it. We need to share our voices and guide regulators to put in place smart policies for AI across industries including agriculture. Remember, technology has, and always will be, a double-edged sword, and ignoring the unintended consequences will harm our fragile global food system.

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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