Will Artificial Intelligence Help Resolve the Food Crisis?

Credit: Food Tank

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Nov 14 2019 (IPS)

When UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres made a global appeal
for “zero hunger” on World Food Day last month, he provided
some grim statistics rich in irony: more than 820 million people do
not have enough to eat, he said, while two billion people are
overweight or obese.

“It is unacceptable that hunger is on the rise at a time when
the world wastes more than one billion tonnes of food every
year.”
Still, the United Nations is hoping for the eradication of extreme
hunger by 2030 as part of its Sustainable Development Goals
(SDGs).

How realistic is this? And can Artificial Intelligence (AI),
touted as the new panacea for some of the world’s ills, help
facilitate increased agricultural crops and farm output?

In a New York Times article titled “Harvesting Corn, Wheat and
a Profit” October 13, Tim Gray points out that as the world’s
population rises, from the current 7.6 billion to nearly 10 billion
in 2050, the United Nations has estimated that 70 percent more food
will be needed by then, but it will have to be produced on just
five percent of arable land.

But AI, meanwhile, is on the move with farmers operating
self-guided tractors guided by GPS navigation systems, drones being
used to monitor crops, AI being employed in irrigation and robots
likely to take cow hands’ jobs.

Asked if there is a role for AI in agriculture, Sonja Vermeulen,
Director of Programs, CGIAR System Organization, told IPS:
“Absolutely. CGIAR’s role in this is creating and scaling up
affordable AI and big data solutions – so they are relevant and
accessible to a wide diversity of farmers regardless of gender,
culture, wealth or literacy.

For example, CGIAR (described as a global partnership that
unites international
organizations
engaged in research for a food-secured future and
formerly known as the Consultative Group for International
Agricultural Research ) won former UN secretary-general Ban Ki
Moon’s innovation prize for work using big data to better predict
rice harvests from weather patterns so farmers can match planting
places and times (and save a lot of money), she said.

Danielle Nierenberg, President, Food Tank, described as a think
tank for food, told IPS while AI, Big Data, and other technologies
can hold a lot of potential for farmers of all sizes, they are not
a silver bullet for solving hunger.”

“The question we need to ask with all technologies is what
problem are they trying to solve and who will they help?”

Unfortunately, she said, many high-tech innovations are not
helping farmers who need it the most—the world’s small and
medium sized farmers who produce much of the food on the globe.

Those farmers need to be part of the research and development of
new technologies so that they actually solve the challenges those
farmers face, she added.

And there needs to be an emphasis on combining “high” and
“low” tech innovations and making sure that farmers indigenous
and traditional knowledge is respected, said Nierenberg.

An article titled “Artificial Intelligence: What AI Can do for
Smallholder Farmers” in the Food Tank website, says “Imagine
one hundred years ago if farmers had access to huge volumes of
information about the soil profile of their land, the varieties of
crops they were growing, and even the fluctuations of their local
climate?. This kind of information could have prevented an
environmental crisis like the Dust Bowl of the 1920s in the
American Midwest. But even ten years ago, the idea that farmers
could have access to this kind of information was
unrealistic.”

For the team behind the CGIAR Platform for Big Data in
Agriculture
, farming is the next frontier for using artificial
intelligence (AI) to efficiently solve complex problems. The
team—which includes biologists, agronomists, nutritionists, and
policy analysts working with data scientists—is using Big Data
tools to create AI systems that can predict the potential outcomes
of future scenarios for farmers.

By
leveraging massive amounts of data
and using innovative
computational analysis, the CGIAR Platform is working to help
farmers increase their efficiency and reduce the risks that are
inherent in farming, according to the article.

Asked for her comments, Ruth Richardson, Executive Director,
Global Alliance for the Future of Food, told IPS: “When it comes
to the future of food in the climate emergency, we need to go
beyond just looking to “technology” as a silver bullet
solution. Instead, we need to broaden the discussion to be about
wider food system transformation and interrogate whether technology
is the end or a means to an end?”

After all, she said, some farmers operate using advanced
technology but many globally are still reliant on small scale
operations and tools. It’s important to also note that technology
and innovation, more broadly, are important tools to achieve
sustainable food systems but technology itself – especially the
access to it — is not neutral.

Richardson pointed out that one of the biggest challenges
related to technology is related to governance.

“A concentration of power and highly unequal power relations
are a deep problem in today’s broken food system so we need to
ensure that technology and its implementation is managed in a way
that promotes equity and environmental sustainability. Any
developments need to be assessed holistically with a focus on risks
and trade-offs,” she declared.

Anuradha Mittal, Executive Director at the San Francisco-based
Oakland Institute, told IPS today nearly 800 million people are
hungry and this number is expected to grow, despite grand
declarations by the governments at UN summits.

“But we already produce enough food to feed at least 10
billion people (the current population is around 7.6 billion). It
is therefore essential to understand the true causes of
hunger—when there is no shortage of food.”

Focus on technology driven industrial agricultural system as a
solution to hunger, has created a food system that is upside down
and backwards. Denying family farmers their basic rights to land,
seeds, markets, and food sovereignty has rendered food producers
hungry, argued Mittal.

Take the case of India – primarily an agrarian economy with
60% of its population employed in agriculture. India is world’s
14th largest agricultural, fishery, and forestry product exporter
– in 2018, India accrued a $14.6 billion trade surplus of
agricultural, fishery, and forestry goods.

And yet, she pointed out, farmer suicides continue to dominate
newspaper headlines nationally while the country is home to the
largest number of hungry people in the world. In 2017 Global Hunger
Index, India ranked 100 out of 119 ranked countries.

The last Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report
focused on climate change and land, makes it clear that fixing our
food system is imperative. Industrial food production has led to
increased greenhouse gas emissions; monopoly of a few corporations
over seeds to chemical inputs; monoculture production which
threatens biodiversity globally; and more.

“This has made our agricultural system both a major driver of
climate change—and majorly vulnerable to its effects.”.

“Instead of seeing artificial intelligence as the next silver
bullet solution to hunger, we need a food system that respects and
protects the intelligence of family farmers, traditional knowledge
and agroecological principles of farming,” declared Mittal..

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Will Artificial Intelligence Help Resolve the Food Crisis?

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Will Artificial Intelligence Help Resolve the Food Crisis?