Canadian poet Brian Brett once wrote that ‘Farming is a profession of hope.’
After all, farming is fraught with risk. Whether it be pests, disease, unforgiving weather or fluctuations in produce prices, countless risks pave the road from sowing to harvesting.
But what if we could reduce these risks?
What if farmers could predict their future yields?
What if farmers could receive personalized, case-specific advice on the best crops to plant considering soil conditions, weather patterns and market demand?
What if farmers could receive forewarning that pests and diseases are likely to arrive?
That is the great promise artificial intelligence (AI) holds for agriculture: to drastically reduce uncertainty and risk, while optimizing yields and using less labour and fewer resources.
1) How AI can be used in agriculture
There is a wide variety of exciting applications of artificial intelligence in agriculture. Some of the main ones include:
Precision agriculture assesses and delivers exactly what an individual plant or an animal needs for optimum health and productivity. It is one of the fastest growing artificial intelligence-enabled applications in agriculture, helping farmers minimize costs, optimize resources and preserve the environment. Precision farming uses artificial intelligence for data collection, interpretation and analysis.
Predictive analytics can highlight risks and stresses ahead of time, allowing farmers to act promptly and mitigate damages at minimal cost. This can include analyzing weather patterns and micro-climate conditions to predict yields, or using aerial photography to detect early signs of pests.
Autonomous vehicles and agricultural robots powered by artificial intelligence conduct various agricultural tasks and help to improve performance and reduce labor requirements.
2) The potential impact of AI in agriculture
The potential impact of these technologies can hardly be overstated. It includes:
Crop Yield, Quality and Resilience: AI can better identify optimal crop varieties and improve breeding research processes. This, in turn, can help secure enhanced yields and high quality produce in various environments.
Crop Protection: AI can help to provide forecasts regarding diseases, weather and pests. By providing farmers with rapid and advanced warnings, it allows farmers to respond early, appropriately and in a targeted manner.
Animal Husbandry: AI can improve breeding processes and optimise nutrition in animal husbandry, helping farmers to secure high yields and optimize livestock health.
Environmental Sustainability: AI can help to optimize the use of inputs including fertilizer, pesticides and water to produce more with less. In so doing, AI can hold the key to increased environmental sustainability as we secure high yields with fewer resources and chemicals.
Food Losses: AI can also yield impressive benefits with respect to increasing the shelf life of various crops. For example, AI can power automated processes that scan harvested crops for damage, disease or pests.
3) Do we really need this?
Food systems the world over face unprecedented strains and disruptions. The exponential growth of global populations is a constant pressure on the world’s farmers to produce more. How much more? According to the FAO, 70% more by 2050 compared to 2009. This surge in demand goes hand in hand with the need to transform agricultural practices to protect the environment, mitigate climate change, make the best use of strained natural resources and protect crops from extreme weather. At this uniquely challenging crossroads, AI’s potential to increase crop yields, resilience and quality could hardly be more relevant and timely.
4) Israel is an AI in agriculture powerhouse in the making
Israel is already renowned as one of the world’s leading agricultural powerhouses. It boasts world-leading productivity figures, cutting edge research centers (like The Volcani Institute, Israel’s national agricultural research center), an educated and tech-friendly agricultural workforce, and a thriving agri-tech commercial ecosystem.
In addition, Israel is fast emerging as a leading nation in artificial intelligence research and development. There are over 3000 data scientists, developers and engineers working on artificial intelligence in Israel. Large multinational technology companies (including Intel, Microsoft, IBM, Apple and Amazon) all have an R&D presence in Israel.
Unsurprisingly then, there are several signs pointing to Israel’s emergence as a pioneer in this field. In academia, the presence at Volcani of the Institute of Agricultural Engineering (which includes an Agricultural Robotics Laboratory) shows genuine dedication to this emerging area of research.
In the corporate world, according to Start-Up Nation Central, Smart Farming (an area where AI can often play a key role) is the fastest growing sector in agritech: with 65 new companies founded in the last five years and 70 million USD raised in 2017. A short perusal of Israeli agritech companies focused on AI reveals a plethora of innovative solutions including AI-powered beehive monitoring, autonomous agricultural robotics, smart aquaculture systems, enhanced crop breeding solutions, drone-based autonomous herding systems for ranchers and autonomous agricultural spraying technologies.
Israel is poised to usher in the next generation of findings and innovations enabling us to harness the best of AI in agriculture.