Dr Paul Henderson is a senior research fellow at the Maxim Institute.
OPINION: We think we’re pretty sharp when it comes to farming, right? After all, agriculture makes up almost 80% of our exports, and roughly 40% of Aotearoa New Zealand is under the plough.
We were leaders in “precision farming” in the 1980s and 90s. But more recently, we have fallen behind initiatives in the United States, UK, the Netherlands, India and Singapore, who have invested heavily in artificial intelligence – what some are calling the future of farming.
We are resting on our laurels due to a lack of information on what’s out there – and because of the cost of new technology and doubts about a return on investment.
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This is no time for complacency. The world’s population is expected to hit 10 billion by 2050. Feeding people will be a challenge: India will carry the largest population, Nigeria the third, with Indonesia, Pakistan, Brazil, and Bangladesh following up. Production levels worldwide will need to increase by 70%. In short, food security must be a priority.
But while the world will be hungry, so will Kiwis. In a crisis, we might be able to satisfy the gaping maws of Auckland for several months. For 3.6 million other Kiwis, it will not be so easy. Longer than this, it may not be possible at all.
The growing use of AI in agriculture will help us meet this challenge. AI currently operates successfully in almost every area of life. From medicine, stock markets, defence systems, and education to entertainment.
Soon it will be ubiquitous in agriculture. It will help with planning, planting, harvesting, irrigating, managing soils, monitoring pasture and livestock health, moving livestock, and oversight of the supply chain. Not just through automation but via independent machine intelligence taking the initiative.
Sustainability will drive increased adoption of AI in agriculture even more than productivity. There is a bristling sense of urgency, locally and globally, over land and water care and the loss of biodiversity. Our stewardship of grasslands and aquatic systems will come under even more scrutiny.
Legislation and policy do address these concerns somewhat. But compliance in agriculture is already complex and onerous. It will surge. It is in compliance that AI will really show its value. It will automate compliance, generally.
AI will monitor water flows and the targeted use of chemicals and pesticides. It will lift physical burdens from farmers’ shoulders as well as bureaucratic ones. It will assist in determining the best paths to take for responsible crop farming, dairy farming, viticulture, hydroponics and aquaculture.
AI devours data. The more it gets, the better it can predict likely outcomes and then use these to make precise judgements on courses of action. This translates to real-time feedback for users, based on more information and intelligence than the human eye can clean or mind compute.
Drones use infrared, gamma, and X-ray frequencies. Like satellites, they can analyse the leaf condition of individual blades of grass or kiwifruit vines and then pass the information on to an AI via the “internet of things”.
AI will assess plant health, nutrient condition, and irrigation needs. It will control how much water is used, for how long, and at what concentration in one small zone.
It can also move livestock to fresher pastures through an electronic gate system and digital collars. Collars and tags will also send data via the internet of things to an AI that monitors animal health, picking up lameness in cattle or optimal times for insemination.
Very quickly, such technology will become the bread and butter for farms of the future.
Drones, robotics, and automation will cover every area of agricultural activity. Pests will be killed by micro-spraying drones flying to and from their docks or solar-powered beetle-like bots, which, while they are about their task, take-out weeds too.
This future is much closer than we think. Tractor maker John Deere’s fourth quarter trading update has just reported a 37% surge in sales with a net income of US$2.2 billion (NZ$3.5b). The company aims to see fully automated farming using robotics and AI within 10 years. It is partnering with IBM and will dominate the field.
This future is not risk-free: hacking, data leakage, rogue drones loaded up with round-up or glyphosate, or flailing bots in glass and packing houses aren’t a good look.
Testing new AI technology must be very well controlled, too. But “sandboxes,” which act as maximum-security prisons for trialling new technology, data security protocols, and above all, the availability of investment capital, will see New Zealand reap dividends from the revolution in farming that is on us.
All this means the challenges contain great opportunities for Aotearoa New Zealand. We have a strong agriculture sector that blesses others and enriches us. With AI, it can be even stronger.