Publish at April 27 2022 Updated May 03 2022

Cultivating AIs

Data is at the heart of precision agriculture

City dwellers generally have a rather folkloric view of agriculture. They imagine families tending to their fields and animals with machinery like combines and tractors as the seasons change. A bubble from another time in a society that is becoming digital. But this could not be further from the truth. The countryside is being profoundly transformed with the latest technologies.

Vertical farms are being built and are 90% controlled by artificial intelligence. They allow strawberries to grow year-round, even in a cold climate like Quebec's. Drones monitor the fields and can analyze various elements. The use of machine learning in agribusiness improves harvests. A new era is opening up with AI, that of precision agriculture.

Valuable data to serve farmers

In fact, technology now makes it possible to use extremely sensitive sensors that can detect both bug populations and soil moisture. By amassing data and offering it to algorithms, the machines learn to respond to farmers' needs. For example, the Colorado potato beetle is a pest species in potato plantations. However, the overuse of insecticides harms the environment and weighs on profitability. So specialists have developed sensors that can detect the presence of the hexapods and spray only the affected plants.

Technologies whose spectroscopy gives farmland owners an accurate picture of the precise composition and health of the soil. A way for them to better organize their plantings or fertilization. Will a field need fertilizer or not this season? Accumulated data can quickly answer that question.

The AI and agribusiness sector is growing. By 2025, it would be estimated at €2.5 billion. 44% of French farmers already use decision support tools. Initiatives are growing around the world to further integrate precision agriculture. In Canada, the federal government has invested several million so that algorithms help in alfalfa farming. Togo, whose 40% of gross domestic product is based on its agriculture also sees potential and the agricultural community has become more open to digital technologies.

More or less justified fears

Of course, such a transformation of a sector as old as agriculture raises fears. Some are unjustified, and others still raise issues to be considered. Will algorithms make men and women in agriculture obsolete? The simple answer is no. The principle, as this computer science professor reminds us, is to relieve the farmer of repetitive and time-consuming tasks so that he or she can make the best decisions. Because nature does not act in a binary mode like machines. It is made up of subtleties that only a person can understand. Farmers' common sense still has its place; only IT is there to support its choices.

On the other hand, the topic of data raises questions that will need to be answered. How do we ensure that these millions of accumulated information are protected? A key question in a context where digital giants are increasingly eyeing precision agriculture as a new market.

Or, we know that several major players have had significant security breaches. How can we be certain of their competence to defend this data? In a process of robotizing certain agricultural tasks, the possibilities of hacking by foreign forces or simply ill-intentioned individuals are cause for concern.

Finally, while Western farmers are already taking advantage of this cutting-edge agronomy, this is not the case in many regions around the world that also lack sufficient internet coverage to get started. This digital and economic divide (technological solutions are expensive) is likely to be felt even more in the coming years and decades. Yet, these circles would furthermore need these innovations more in order to improve their crops and feed more of their countrymen.

Photo: DJI-Agras on Pixabay


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