With agriculture accounting for almost 80% of our exports and nearly 40% of New Zealand’s land being used for farming, one may assume that we have a strong understanding of farming.
While New Zealand was a pioneer in “precision farming” during the 1980s and 90s, we have since been overtaken by countries such as the United States, UK, the Netherlands, India, and Singapore, who have made significant investments in artificial intelligence (AI), which many consider to be the future of farming.
A lack of awareness of available technologies and concerns over the return on investment have caused us to become complacent and fail to keep up with the advancements made by other countries in artificial intelligence for farming.
There is no room for complacency as the global population is projected to reach 10 billion by 2050, posing a significant challenge in terms of feeding people. India will have the largest population, followed by Nigeria in third place, with Indonesia, Pakistan, Brazil, and Bangladesh following closely behind. To meet the needs of the growing population, food production will need to increase by 70%, making food security a top priority.
AI is helping to address the challenges of feeding a growing population
Despite being a major food exporter, New Zealand may also face food shortages in the future. In the event of a crisis, the country may be able to provide for Auckland for a few months, but meeting the needs of the remaining 3.6 million New Zealanders could prove challenging. In the long term, it may not be possible at all.
The increasing adoption of AI in agriculture can aid us in meeting this challenge. AI has already proven successful in nearly every aspect of life, from medicine, stock markets, and defense systems to education and entertainment.
AI is set to become increasingly common in agriculture, helping to address the challenges of feeding a growing population. In the future, AI will be used to plan, plant, harvest, irrigate, manage soil, monitor livestock health, move livestock, and oversee the supply chain. This will be achieved not just through automation, but also through independent machine intelligence that can take the initiative.
The adoption of AI in agriculture will be driven more by sustainability concerns than productivity. The loss of biodiversity and urgent need for land and water conservation have created a sense of urgency both locally and globally. There is increased scrutiny on our stewardship of grasslands and aquatic systems, which will further drive the use of AI technology in the industry.
The concerns related to land and water care and the loss of biodiversity are addressed to some extent by legislation and policy, but compliance in the agricultural sector is already complicated and burdensome. With the expected surge in regulations, AI will prove its value in automating compliance.
AI will play a crucial role in
- monitoring water flows,
- targeted use of chemicals and pesticides,
- reducing the physical and bureaucratic burden on farmers,
- help in determining the best practices for responsible farming in crop, dairy, viticulture, hydroponics, and aquaculture.
Applied use of AI in agriculture
AI has a voracious appetite for data. As it acquires more, it becomes better at forecasting possible results and using them to make exact decisions on the best course of action. This leads to instantaneous responses for users, based on an abundance of information and insights beyond human capacity to process.
Drones equipped with infrared, gamma, and X-ray frequencies can analyze the health of individual grass blades or kiwifruit vines. This information can then be transmitted to AI via the “Internet of Things,” similar to satellite technology.
AI will evaluate the health of plants, nutrient levels, and determine the required irrigation. It will regulate the amount of water used, the duration, and concentration in a specific area.
An AI system can even manage the movement of livestock through electronic gates and digital collars, ensuring they are directed to fresh pastures. The collars and tags on the animals can also send data to the AI through the “Internet of Things”, allowing for the monitoring of animal health and detecting issues like lameness in cattle or determining the optimal time for insemination.
In no time, such technology will become the norm for farms of the future. Robotics, drones, and automation will be utilized in every aspect of agricultural activity. Pests will be eliminated by micro-spraying drones that travel to and from their docks, or by solar-powered beetle-like bots that also remove weeds while they work.
The future of AI and robotics in farming is rapidly approaching
The John Deere, a leading tractor manufacturer, has reported a significant 37% increase in sales and a net income of US$2.2 billion (NZ$3.5b) in its fourth quarter trading update. The company is collaborating with IBM and plans to achieve fully automated farming through the use of robotics and AI within the next decade, establishing itself as a major player in the industry.
There are risks associated with this future, including the possibility of hacking, data breaches, drones carrying harmful substances like round-up or glyphosate, or malfunctioning bots in processing and packing facilities.
However, it is important to note that this future comes with its own set of risks, such as hacking, data breaches, and the potential misuse of drones or robots for harmful purposes. Additionally, rigorous testing and controls are necessary to ensure that new AI technology is safe and effective. Fortunately, the use of secure “sandboxes” for testing new technology, along with robust data security protocols and sufficient investment capital, will enable New Zealand to reap the benefits of the upcoming agricultural revolution.
The challenges ahead present significant opportunities for New Zealand/Aotearoa. Our agriculture sector is already a strong contributor to our economy and wellbeing, but with the integration of AI, it has the potential to be even stronger.