AI Farming: Benefits & Challenges

Farming, one of the world’s oldest and essential industries, has experienced monumental changes since the industrial revolution. We transitioned from an agrarian rural society to an industrial urban society.
AI Farming: Benefits & Challenges
AI Farming: Benefits & Challenges

Today, challenges are compelling us to turn to high-tech solutions such as artificial intelligence.

Farming and agriculture challenges are global challenges, particularly for underdeveloped countries.

In a nutshell, the major challenges are
• Increased populations demanding more food.
• Decreased arable land available for farming.
• Decreased availability of agricultural labor.
• Climate change impacting agricultural productivity.

The world is not producing enough food to feed the world’s population.  The problem is growing worse. Worldwide, agriculture is a $5 trillion industry.  But the UN Food and Agriculture Organization predicts that the world population will grow by 2 billion before 2050.  But there will only be 4% growth in land under cultivation.

In the United States, workers willing to work in the fields are declining in number. Family farms are disappearing because younger generations leave.  Large agricultural companies are taking over the farming industry.  But those large companies are having difficulty finding enough workers.

What is Artificial Intelligence?

Artificial intelligence is a field of computer science that enables a machine (computer) to gather data and perform human-like cognitive functions such as reasoning and problem-solving. Developing AI technologies being applied to solve agricultural problems include robotics, computer vision, and machine learning.

How Does Artificial Intelligence Solve Agricultural Problems?

Artificial intelligence will enable farmers to produce more with less labor and arable land.  It will also help deal with the adverse impact of climate change. It can help farmers to yield more and healthier crops, control pests, predict climate and other growing conditions, analyze data, and deal with labor shortages with robotics.

AI helps today’s farmers to forecast weather conditions, temperatures, rain, water consumption, and soil conditions.   It also helps them to choose the best seed and crop choices, pest control,  irrigation programs, and other practices to optimize productivity. Unmanned drones with cameras can monitor an entire farm acreage with so-called computer vision and deep learning algorithms process data for a farmer to make vital decisions.

AI employment of robotics is helping farmers to deal with a workforce shortage.  Today fewer people are living in rural areas to provide the labor needed for farming. Farmers, large and small, are turning to robotics to fill in the shortage.  Robots can harvest crops, identify and eradicate weeds, and work around the clock.

Farmers can now use chatbots for answering a wide variety of questions concerning every aspect of their farming business.  Chatbots are already a part of our everyday life. For example, Alexa is a voice chatbot technology introduced in 2014 and is used in a growing percentage of households.

How Can Small Farmers Access AI Technology?

Despite the growth and dominance of corporate farming, small farms still produce 70% of the world’s crops.   Corporate farms have no limitation on their AI resources. But small farmers have very thin margins and can’t afford fancy and expensive technologies.

This is particularly a problem in less developed countries where increased productivity is most needed.   Those countries will need experts in the technology and infrastructure including internet connection neither of which are widely available in most developing countries. Less developed countries will need help to create the infrastructure required for AI to improve food quality and productivity.  

The U.N. started in 2017 to do that with the creation of the Technology Bank for Least Developed Countries.  It is funding the distribution of smartphones for farmers to disseminate information and expertise on farming matters.  But much more is needed, including internet service, if we are to feed the hungry populous of less developed countries. In the meantime, AI technology can be widely available and affordable on the internet to farmers in the U.S. and other developed nations for small and large farmers alike.

However, many rural areas still do not have internet access.  Recent legislative proposals in Congress for improved infrastructure are aimed at making the internet accessible to all regions and improving data, information, and AI technology availability to farmers.

Climate Change Concerns

AI technologies are being tested on smartphones in Africa that predict and enhance crop productivity in the face of climate change.  Climate change in East Africa is impacting rainfall patterns and adversely affecting crops.  

AI will help African farmers prepare for drought conditions and diagnose crop diseases.  Machine learning models with smartphone apps proved to be far better diagnoses than human experts produced.

AI assembles historical data from global sources about drought-tolerant crops and which crops are suitable for a particular area.   AI also advises farmers about climate-resilient varieties, irrigation methods, and conservation practices.  

Farmers in less developed countries, as well as small family farmers in the United States, are threatened by climate change, demographic changes, anti-competitive practices of large corporate farms.  They need help to feed their populous in poor countries.  U.S. small farmers need assistance to stay alive in changing rural social and economic circumstances.   AI technologies will continue to be a growing influence.

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