Forget Bob Geldof, it’s robots who will feed the world 2019-06-07T14:46:18+01:00
ai feeding the world

How ai will help feed the world

By 2050, the world’s population is expected to be 9.8 billion people. Undoubtedly, this would put significant pressure on the planet’s already overstretched resources, with a study published in the journal Bioscience in 2017 estimating that global food production would need to increase by between 25 and 70 per cent to avoid widespread hunger.

But as Dr Michael Snowden, CEO of New Zealand computing company OneNet, explained, the difficulties farmers are facing around the world make this a huge challenge. One problem, he said, is the lack of availability of arable land – climate change and declining water levels are contributing to plateauing crop yields and there’s very little viable land left. In addition, the average age of farmers is increasing and there are challenges getting seasonal labour.

The solution, he says, is for agriculture to become more efficient – and he says that technology and artificial intelligence, from satellites, drones and GPS to sensors, robotics and automation, are key to this.

Introducing the agribot

Autonomous robots, or agribots, can harvest crops, milk cows and spray herbicides, often more quickly or productively than humans can, in any weather, without getting tired. Driverless tractors and helicopters can work using GPS.

In California, Blue River Technology has developed a machine that identifies and applies herbicide to just weeds, instead of over a whole area. The result? A reduction in the amount of herbicide by as much as 80 per cent. According to Snowden, that means fewer chemicals in the soil, cost reductions for farmers and ultimately lower consumer prices.

Sensors can monitor a range of environmental conditions – temperature, precipitation, moisture and nutrient content and chemical composition of the soil – and artificial intelligence can interpret the data and help farmers make decisions. For example, precise, localised weather data can help farmers decide when to plant and harvest crops. Artificial intelligence can then analyse drone and satellite images to detect diseases, pests and poor plant nutrition, or keep the soil at the required moisture level using automated irrigation.

What about the farmers?

But Dr Snowden was quick to confirm that the machines were there to help farmers, not to replace them. He said,

“There are lots of things that are human-based that a computer will never be able to substitute for. Artificial intelligence cannot help you with judgment. It’s great to have all these suggestions, but somewhere along the line, a human has to make a call on the basis of that information. A computer is also unlikely to give you guidance into ethics, for example how animals are treated or how pastures are overgrazed.”

Food wastage still an issue

The solutions proposed above, while undoubtedly useful in their own right, ignore one huge aspect of the problem: food waste. In 2013, the Institute of Mechanical Engineers estimated that between one third and one half of the food produced around the world goes uneaten, for reasons including inadequate storage, excessively strict use-by dates and pure consumer fussiness – some 30 per cent of vegetable crops around the world are not harvested because of their appearance.

If those estimates are correct, then merely producing the same amount of food we do now, but not wasting any of it, would more or less feed even a vastly increased global population. The issue then, is how to alter consumer behaviour.

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