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BusinessDay: Agriculture and AI — securing our children’s future

By Johan Steyn, 13 September 2023

The world is at the precipice of an impending food crisis. By 2050, erratic weather patterns owing to climate change could escalate global food prices by 25%, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute. Disturbingly, at present, 783-million people remain uncertain about where their next meal will come from, with about 690-million undernourished.

In an era where sustainability, food security and rapid technological advancements dominate global conversations, the confluence of agriculture and artificial intelligence (AI) emerges as a beacon of hope. The juxtaposition of one of the oldest human practices with the modern marvel of AI might seem unconventional at first glance. Yet, this union promises not only to revolutionise farming practices but also to secure a prosperous and nourished future for our children.

Agriculture has been the cornerstone of human civilisation for millennia. It has evolved, adapted and grown to meet the challenges of changing climates, expanding populations and the ever-shifting dynamics of global trade. However, today’s challenges — from soil degradation to climate change — require solutions that traditional farming practices alone cannot provide.

One of modern technology’s most promising applications in agriculture is precision farming. Using data from satellites, drones and ground sensors, AI can analyse the condition of soil, crops and weather to make precise recommendations. This could range from the optimal time to plant a specific crop to identifying areas that need more irrigation. It promises to result in increased crop yields, reduced waste and efficient use of resources.

AI-powered image recognition can scan and analyse crops to detect signs of diseases or pest infestations. Early detection allows farmers to act quickly, saving entire harvests and reducing the need for widespread pesticide use. Tractors and harvesters equipped with AI can navigate fields, plant seeds and harvest crops with minimal human intervention. Such machinery can work around the clock, ensuring that farming processes are optimised and timely. By analysing global trade patterns, AI can streamline the agricultural supply chain, ensuring that produce reaches the market when it’s most needed and reducing food wastage.

While the potential benefits of integrating AI into agriculture are vast, there are challenges to be met. The initial investment required for AI-powered equipment can be high, potentially putting it out of reach for small-scale farmers. There’s also a steep learning curve associated with implementing and understanding these new technologies.

Investment in education and training programmes can help bridge the knowledge gap, enabling farmers to harness the power of AI. Governments and the private sector need to collaborate, providing subsidies or financing options for those looking to integrate AI into their farming practices. Furthermore, open-source AI platforms, where knowledge and innovations are shared freely, can democratise access, ensuring that even farmers in the most remote parts of the world can benefit.

As we envision a world where our children and their children live in abundance and health, the fusion of agriculture and AI stands out as a path forward. This isn’t merely about technological innovation; it’s about a sustainable, nourished and prosperous future. It’s about taking the wisdom of the past, the tools of the present, and forging a path to a secure future. In the interplay of soil and algorithms, we find a promise — a promise of food, sustenance and a brighter tomorrow for generations to come.


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