Last month, the day after the world’s scientific academies warned that global food systems are failing humanity and speeding up climate change, I was at a workshop at Chatham House on “Artificial intelligence for a sustainable and healthy food system“.
The Chatham house conference on food that preceded the workshop, (see my last blog), ended with the key point that trying to increase the productivity of commodity crops within the dominant cheaper food paradigm – with its feedback loops that reinforced climate change, biodiversity loss, and malnutrition in all its forms – is the wrong vision to pursue. It’s a system that is not designed to deliver sustainable nutrition and promote good health. The total externalised costs of agriculture to health care were far greater than the profits generated from food production.
This workshop began with that challenge. The key danger was that employing artificial intelligence within the current fatally flawed food systems is likely to make matters worse not better. As another participant pointed out, technologies are not separate from social problems which are embedded within them. Technology is never value free and always embodies some vision what the future would be like. The need, it was argued, is to move from a business as usual approach to a business unusual approach.
The question was how would artificial intelligence be used in ways that don’t reinforce business as usual but help transform our food systems. We heard about the many ways in which artificial intelligence is being used today – with over a hundred companies working on areas such as robotics and roles, precision agriculture and predictive analytics, farm management software, smart irrigation, plant data and analysis, animal data, and next-generation farms.
There were various examples of how satellite data could be cross-linked with mapping and soils data to optimise applications of agrochemicals, drive robotic machinery, increase efficiency of complex supply chains – the UK imports foodstuffs from 196 countries, ranging from £500 worth of yak milk to £7 billion worth of foodstuffs from the Netherlands – help in differentiating products, and improve response to disasters.
But for me the most interesting piece of work gets to the heart of what drives the way we currently run our food systems and helps in the words of that old adage to “follow the money”. For it’s what people invest in that decides what is grown where. The trase project – Transfer and supply chains for sustainable economies – aims to make transparent who’s investing what throughout our food systems. This helps people and governments understand where to direct money, and shape the rules, regulations and incentives, to make more sustainable farming and food systems possible.
That needs to go along with better policy-making governance frameworks to tackle the unacceptable levels of malnutrition and promote healthy food production and consumption, as the 2018 global nutrition report, released around the same time as the workshop, points out.
Graphic from 2018 Global Nutrition Report
The European Parliament (EP) commissioned a study to look at Precision agriculture in Europe: Legal, social and ethical considerations drawing upon a recent scientific foresight study on “Precision agriculture and the future of farming in Europe“. The EP study warned that the potential misuse of farm-related data could lead to anti-competitive practices including price discrimination and speculations in commodity markets that may affect food security especially in Europe. It also suggests that precision farming, while holding out the prospect of increased efficiency, may also lead to a growing digital division between small and large farms, severe informational asymmetries and a dependence on off-farm service support, abuse of data by agricultural commodity markets, undermine the autonomy of the farmer and local farming structures, and lead to an unprecedented power shift in the industrial farming process.
For all the various promise technological innovation offers, in the end the question is what kind of world we want it to lead to and which scenarios will most clearly lead us to one in which we can achieve sustainable development goals, have more varied diets and farming systems in which less agricultural efficiency, as currently defined, could actually mean more system efficiency and lower waste.
So in the excitement many have about the opportunities artificial intelligence offered we need to be clear about the kind of world we want it to help create.
You might find some of the following links to further reading of interest:
Smith Matthew J. (2018) Getting value from artificial intelligence in agriculture. Animal Production Science
Rob Bailey (2017) Disrupting dinner? Food for the future, Hoffmann Centre for Sustainable Resource Economy
Marco Springmann et al (2018) Options for keeping the food system within environmental limits, Nature, 562, 519-525
Juergen Voegele (2018) Farm and food policy innovations for the digital age, Brookings Institute
World Economic Forum (2017) Shaping the Future of Global Food Systems: A Scenarios Analysis – Shaping the Future of Global Food Systems: A Scenarios Analysis