Securing Food Through AI

There is an urgent need to develop sustainable agricultural practices and ensure food security at a much higher level than has ever been attempted – or required. According to a study conducted by Bisk College of Business assistant professor Darrell Burrell and others, this leap might only be possible with the rapid development and application of cutting-edge technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI).

Burrell, along with colleagues from Grand Canyon University, Temple University and Illinois Institute of Technology, published “Exploring technological management innovations that include artificial intelligence and other innovations in global food production,” in the International Journal of Society Systems Science last year. The research offered new data on technological innovations that may help overcome agricultural concerns for meeting a process improvement initiative.

The study analyzed technologies being used to increase food production, as included insights from those in the industry. The research found there were several AI-related systems that are used in farming, ranging from drones surveying the crops to solar panels and sunset-triggered irrigation to motion sensor technology that serves as a digital scarecrow by scaring birds away from crops with a simulated human yell. The paper even looked at robots picking crops.

“The things that I’ve seen in my research are the ability to capitalize on technologies that were maybe intended for one purpose but are now being used for another,” Burrell said. “The ability to use drones to survey your farm actually makes things more efficient. Instead of me having maybe five people inspecting my farm, I could sit in my farmhouse and use this drone to inspect and review what is going on.”

According to the paper, by the year 2050 the world’s population is expected to reach 9.8 billion, and it will hit 11.2 billion in 2100. This upward movement is the most significant hurdle to sustainable agriculture and food security. Today, about one billion people are chronically hungry, and this crisis is a result of inefficient food production and distribution systems and undeveloped agricultural land that is leaving room to grow food for the additional 2-3 billion people globally expected by 2050.

While the technology has proven beneficial for farmers, there are some challenges in the process. While the tech studied was shown to be effective, it was used primarily on large commercial farms, where it was generally embraced. However, the technology elicited some hesitancy from small farming operations, local farmers told Burrell. More comfortable with manual tasks, they were less willing to trust the technology to do the same work.

Burrell would like to see government organizations that support farming provide more funding to allow farmers to utilize existing technology and increase the exposure of what technology can do by presenting it at agricultural conventions and farmer’s markets.

Another aspect of the work relates to potential security threats. Burrell cited an example where the irrigation system that is set to turn on when the sun goes down fails to do so because it was hacked, leading to crop loss. Burrell and his colleagues will look at the cybersecurity elements of this technology and its applications next.

“There’s a lot of things that when we go into the grocery store, we take for granted about our food systems and food security and I think people really need to understand how important farms are in this country, how this country is built on this whole aspect of farming,” Burrell said.

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