Emerging Technologies

This is how AI could feed the world’s hungry while sustaining the planet

aerial view of field being ploughed, suggesting state of the art agricultural practices and use of AI in agriculture

AI for agriculture: the quiet revolution. Image: Photo by no one cares on Unsplash

Mark Caine
Project Lead, Artificial Intelligence and Machine LearningProject Lead, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, Google
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This article is part of: Sustainable Development Impact Summit
  • While the risks posed by AI dominate the headlines, behind the scenes there is a quiet revolution underway as AI systems are used to tackle the greatest challenges facing humanity, from climate change and COVID-19, to world hunger.
  • Improving the food system is critically important to achieving several SDGs, but it is just one of many ways that AI is helping to usher in the more equitable, sustainable world that the SDGs envision.

Artificial Intelligence is transforming the world at a rapid and accelerating pace, offering huge potential, but also posing social and economic challenges. Human beings are naturally fearful of machines – this is a constant. Technological advancements tend to outpace cultural shifts. It has taken the shock of a global pandemic to accelerate the uptake of many technologies that have been around for at least a decade.

Unsurprisingly, much of the public discussion on AI has focused on recent controversies around facial recognition, automated decision-making and exam algorithms. Job losses due to automation have further underscored the need for AI systems to become better regulated and more ethical.

Have you read?

But while the risks posed by AI have dominated the headlines, behind the scenes there is a quiet revolution underway as a new crop of startups are developing AI systems to tackle the greatest challenges facing humanity, from climate change to COVID-19.

A new cohort of purpose-driven innovators has entered the AI space, and ‘AI for Good’ is emerging as one of the most powerful tools to achieve the SDGs and improve lives and livelihoods worldwide.

The agricultural sector employs over 25% of the world’s working population and is responsible for sustaining 7.5 billion people. Despite decades of efforts by governments and industry, more than a quarter of those people – a staggering 1.9 billion – remain moderately or severely food insecure, and roughly 820 million do not get enough to eat on a daily basis. SDG 2, Zero Hunger, aims to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture”.

The challenge is staggering: with global population projected to expand to almost 10 billion by 2050, experts estimate that feeding the planet will require farmers to grow 69% more calories than they did in 2006. At the same time, our existing agricultural systems are already wreaking havoc on the planet, contributing to over 10% of global carbon emissions and using up to half of the world’s habitable land, with devastating consequences for biodiversity, fresh water supplies, and natural ecosystems.

A more intelligent use of land could feed us all and save the planet. Image: Our World in Data

How can we expand food supply to meet SDG 2 while continuing to make progress on SDGs 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation), 13 (Climate Action), and 15 (Life on Land)? Enter AI, which is beginning to transform virtually every aspect of the agriculture and food system.

4 pioneering uses of AI in agriculture

Here are 4 ways AI is helping to feed the hungry while saving the planet:

1. Some agricultural AI startups are focused on the field, training powerful algorithms on vast new datasets to improve the efficiency and performance of traditional farms. Israel-based Prospera collects some 50 million data points each day from 4,700 fields. They use AI to analyze them to identify disease and pest outbreaks and find opportunities to grow yields, eliminate waste and reduce pollution.

2. Others are focused on building entirely new approaches to farming from the ground up, enabled by AI technology. Plenty and Aerofarms are pioneering vertical indoor farming, using computer vision and AI algorithms to optimize nutrient inputs and increase yields in real time. Root AI is also using computer vision, but combining it with advanced robots to detect when fruit is ripe and harvest it at its prime.

3. While AI-driven indoor farming is unlikely to feed the whole planet by 2050, the more of it we can do the better: the most advanced, AI-enabled operations are estimated to produce over 20 times more food per acre than traditional fields, using roughly 90% less water.

4. AI is not only being used to improve agricultural productivity, but to take on one of the most environmentally-damaging parts of the food sector: industrial meat production. Companies, like Fazenda Futuro in Brazil and NotCo in Chile, have been developing tools using AI to analyze plant data in large quantities to see what the best approach is to replicating the texture and taste of meat.

It is clear: markets are paying attention. Over the last two years, we have seen sales of refrigerated plant-based meat grow 125%. Companies are securing major investments from leading venture capitalists. With meat production accounting for almost 50% of agricultural emissions globally, and a great deal of local pollution, the growing shift to AI-powered plant-based meat alternatives is poised to yield enormous environmental benefits.

Governments see the potential

Governments are also realizing the value of AI in feeding their citizens and improving their agricultural productivity. To help realize these opportunities, The World Economic Forum recently launched a partnership with the Government of India and the State of Telangana to identify high-value use cases for AI in agriculture, develop innovative AI solutions, and drive their widespread adoption.

Speaking at the project’s launch event, Telengana’s IT and Industries Minister voiced the increasingly common view amongst government officials: “We feel that AI will offer immense possibilities for farmers, governments and all other stakeholders of the ecosystem”.

AI can help realize the SDGs

Improving the food system is critically important to achieving several SDGs, but it is just one of many ways that AI is helping to usher in the more equitable, sustainable world that the SDGs envision.

No one technology is going to solve all of the world’s problems, and achieving the SDGs will require ambitious government policies, corporate commitments and individual actions in addition to new technologies. We will need to use every tool at our disposal, and with AI becoming more powerful every day we should encourage more innovators and entrepreneurs to focus on new ways to use this technology to address our biggest societal challenges.

This article was published on Forbes.

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