AI Redefines Agricultural Practices Amid Farmer Challenges

February 15, 2024


This article first appeared in February’s print edition of Business Monthly.

The Russia-Ukraine war has put the spotlight on a growing global food security problem. “The conflict quickly sparked fears of a global food crisis,” said a book published in 2023 by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). “Food prices were already high in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and many countries were facing serious food insecurity.”

The crisis comes amid worries that conventional agricultural practices are unsustainable. “In recent years, there has been a growing concern about the impact of conventional farming practices,” Emerging India Analytics, a think tank, noted in a September research paper. “Excessive use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and water resources has caused significant alarm over soil quality, biodiversity and the overall ecosystem.”

Enter artificial intelligence (AI). “AI stands at the forefront of [the agriculture] revolution,” AMINI, a developer of AI-powered agricultural systems in Africa, said on its website. It “offers solutions … to enhance farm operations and decision-making.”

The Egyptian government needs to fuel that transformation. “Government policies play a crucial role,” said IFPRI. “In recent years, governments around the world have recognized the potential of [AI] in transforming agriculture into a more sustainable and efficient industry.” 

Agriculture challenges

Farming is the top consumer of drinkable water worldwide. “Agriculture accounts for 70% of global freshwater consumption, putting immense pressure on this limited resource,” noted IFPRI. “With climate change causing irregular rainfall patterns and melting glaciers affecting river flows, farmers are struggling to secure enough water for their crops.” AMINI said arable land might suffer droughts one year and destructive flooding the next.

Inadequate irrigation infrastructure is a severe problem in many low- and middle-income nations. “Farmers have limited access to irrigation systems in many parts of the world,” Jiva, an Indonesian tech company operating an e-commerce platform for farmers, said in March. “This can lead to crop failures due to drought, reducing yields and income for farmers.”

The second big issue is soil degradation due to “intensive farming practices,” said AMINI. It “makes land prone to erosion and less resilient to climate extremes.” IFPRI explained that deterioration comes from “monocropping,” which damages the soil’s biodiversity and fertility.” That leads to lower crop yields and less food, IFPRI noted.

Soil degradation also occurs from overusing chemical-based fertilizers to control pest and disease outbreaks, said Jiva. IFPRI said overuse threatens underground water supplies and harms insects essential for pollination and natural pest control.

Jiva also noted “labor shortages” as a significant challenge facing farm owners, further magnified by rising demand for food worldwide.

Meanwhile, “declining rural populations and a lack of interest in farming … lead to increased labor costs and reduced efficiency,” Jiva said. This phenomenon is prevalent in low- and middle-income nations, where small-scale farmers dominate agriculture. They “face significant barriers to selling their products, such as lack of transportation, inadequate infrastructure, and limited access to finance,” Jiva said. That “reduces farmers’ income and contributes to poverty in rural communities.”

Local agro-sustainability

Sustainable agriculture in Egypt is vital. It is a significant contributor to GDP (15% in 2022), exports (17% of commodity exports), and employment (25% of the workforce), according to the Ministry of International Cooperation (MIC). “The wider value chain employs 55% of Upper Egypt’s total population,” MIC Minister Rania El Mashat said in a sponsored article published by Bloomberg in November 2023.

The government is committed to growing that sector further. El Mashat said the 1.5 Million Feddan Project, announced in December 2015, “is the core of Egypt’s agricultural renaissance. It aims to increase agricultural land by almost 20% through the creation of a new [sustainable] Egyptian countryside on reclaimed land.” In July 2023, the government announced they had cultivated 537,000 feddans under the project.

That necessitates the adoption of sustainable practices. In 2016, the government launched the Sustainable Agriculture Investments and Livelihoods Project. As of September 2023, there were sustainable agriculture projects in Aswan, Minya, Red Sea, and Kafr El Sheikh, covering a total of over 934 acres exclusively for individual small farmers.

Ali Hozayen, chairman of the Executive Agency for Comprehensive Development Projects at the Ministry of Agriculture and Land Reclamation, said in the sponsored Bloomberg article, “The aim is to increase resilience to climate change impacts such as water scarcity, water salinity, and increasing temperatures.”

In December 2018, the government announced the 100,000 Greenhouses Project. “The initiative [will] reduce water consumption by up to 70% compared to traditional farming methods,” Hozayen said, adding the crops produced would be “free” of contaminants and pesticide traces.

 Introducing AI

The top benefit of using AI in agriculture is that it “determines the exact amount of resources needed for specific areas of land to optimize crop growth and minimize waste,” IFPRI said. That approach is called precision farming. The rationing of fossil fuels, fertilizers, and pesticides will ultimately decrease farms’ carbon footprint, said Simran Ahuja, author of Agricultural Economics and Agri-Food Business, a book published in December 2023.

According to Codiant, a tech company developing AI agriculture programs, ChatGPT, a commercially available AI tool, “is one of the most powerful tools in precision agriculture.” It enables “irrigation scheduling [to reduce waste water], optimal fertilization practices and pest control.” It also can identify disease and weed infections “by analyzing images and descriptions provided by the farmer.”

ChatGPT also could provide the “right market insights, giving advice on what crops to grow, how to price them, and how to market them,” Codiant said. “They’ll look at … past prices, how much [food products] people want, and how markets go up and down.”

AI also will enable farmers to predict weather patterns more accurately. “This information allows farmers to take proactive measures, such as adjusting planting schedules or choosing more resilient crop variants,” said IFPRI.

However, as with any AI-powered system, agriculture applications need “data from multiple sources, such as satellite imagery, drones, sensors and weather forecasts to create a detailed map of the farm’s soil conditions,” IFPRI said.

That requires significant investment to “collect data about soil moisture levels, weather patterns, crop growth rates and other factors,” IFPRI said. It will likely also change small farmers’ decades-old practices, which can be a significant challenge.

 AI proliferation

The IFPRI stressed the government needs to “incentivize farmers to adopt AI technologies by providing financial support for purchasing equipment and implementing AI-based solutions.” Such support also should cover “funding for research and innovation projects related to AI in agriculture.”

Another approach involves the governments leading the way for investment in research and development into the use of AI in agriculture. “By collaborating with universities and private companies, governments are able to develop cutting-edge technologies that address specific challenges of [local] farmers,” IFPRI said.

Conversely, the government needs to regulate and limit pesticides and fertilizers to avoid degrading soil quality until farmers can use AI-powered systems.

The next step would be integrating autonomous robots or drones with AI agriculture systems. “These machines can be programmed to perform tasks such as planting seeds, applying herbicides or pesticides, or even harvesting crops without human intervention,” said IFPRI.

Such applications would “reduce labor costs,” IFPRI said. That ultimately leads to more affordable foods, curbing inflation and making food exports more competitive.