AI can feed the world, but at what cost?

Mark Fielding
November 27, 2023

AI and other frontier technologies will help the world feed the world’s rapidly expanding population. But how will technology affect the 1 billion people who earn their livelihood as farmers? If AI can really feed the world, what is the right price to pay?

Ext. The Year 2051 – Southern Vietnam Superfarm: In the midst of the second planting season of the year, there’s a typhoon bearing down. Time is of the essence. A farm of invisible technology has been preparing the soil all night, taking raw data from the lumpy earth, analysing the environment with cutting-edge artificial intelligence, and returning the results to an autonomous tractor with the green light to plant the seeds – hybrid, genetically modified, resistant strains engineered to survive the still rapidly changing climate. No need for fertiliser. Nor human intervention. This is an autonomous superfarm.

Agriculture and technology are inextricably linked. From the humble plough to modern enhancements in GM science, technology has shaped humanity’s most fundamental occupation, consolidating the number of farms and slowly concentrating the means of agricultural production. In the year 1800, over 50% of the population worked in agriculture. Today, that figure has halved to 27% — dropping to 3% across high income countries.

Modern frontier technologies open a new chapter in the story of agriculture. One in which an ever-smaller number of farmers use the art of agri-science to streamline efficiency, boost yield, and optimise crop rotation. And it’s not just farmland. Biometric data, robotics, and AI are used on livestock farms for identification, behaviour control, optimised yields. and for disease spread management, preventing the culling of millions of animals.

Farmers are using Big Data and AI to optimise crop yields. In most parts of the world, humans are still very much in the loop. Will it always be so?

One American farm feeds 166 people. Internationally that figure is far lower: each of the world’s 600 million farms feed just 13 people on average. With the global population predicted to reach 10 billion by 2050, how will farmers grow the 70% more in crops needed in a world of shrinking water supplies, climate change, deforestation, and political conflicts? The answer is more AI and more technology.

But how will the proliferation of technology affect the 1 billion people who earn their livelihood as farmers? Will there be more opportunity, or more barriers to entry? Will small, independent farms thrive, or will the world of agriculture tend towards a small, centralised network of superfarms? 

In Brazil, there is optimism for the former. According to a 2021 study by the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation, farms are adopting technology faster than ever before. Farmers are applying machine learning to satellite images in order to diversify into new crops like coffee, soybeans, corn, and a vast array of fruits.

The technology is also making it easier for farmers to improve their pastures and practise ‘double cropping’ (harvesting two crops - typically soybean and maize - from the same field in a year). To fuel the reinvention, the Brazilian government provides subsidies, loans, and tax breaks for farmers who use AI and other frontier technologies, creating a flywheel of adoption and innovation.  

Many agricultural initiatives in South America are designed to help farmers embrace AI and other emerging technologies. Will the same model work in the US and Europe?

In neighbouring Argentina, Agrobit lets farmers use data from weather stations, sensors, and drones to optimise their planting dates and irrigation schedules. AI promises to put the insights of big data in the hands of small farmers who only manage a few fields. That’s the vision of ACA Mi Campo, who claim farmers can use their innovative tech to reduce energy and water usage by up to 50%. Meanwhile, cooperatives like Fecovita are helping small wineries monitor their vineyards and optimise resource usage with satellite images and artificial intelligence. The democratisation of technology is making small farms more competitive with their larger rivals, not just on productivity, but sustainability too. 

Over in the far East, Japan has always combined tradition with futurism. Built on a spine of mountains that make large-scale farming difficult, 80% of Japanese agriculture is the product of small farms. And they're not lagging the world in their embrace of technology.

From wintry Hokkaido to tropical Okinawa, Japanese farmers are using robots to weed, plant, spray, and harvest their crops. Much of this is already autonomous: as far back as 2014, Kubota, a leading manufacturer of agricultural machinery, launched the Smart Agri System that now helps 25,000 Japanese farms “visualise and optimise farm management by utilising data from farm machinery.” 

Kubota’s ultimate goal is complete agricultural autonomy. Their Agri System already includes the autonomous KVT tractor, and will soon include an autonomous rice transplanter and combine harvester.

In America, there’s a similar drive for autonomous machinery. When John Deere purchased autonomous tractor and robotics startup Bear Flag for €250 million in 2021, the 81 other AI tractor startups (plus the other 286 in agritech) would have felt the reverberations. The acquisition was part of a larger strategy by the world’s largest agricultural machinery company to amass a war-chest of tech.

Agritech, robotics, and AI startups like Blue River Technology and Spark AI joined the Illinois company for a cumulative $5 billion investment, making John Deere not just the world’s leader in smart agriculture, but one of the world's most important AI companies. Their first autonomous tractor, the 8R, is currently undergoing field testing.

Farm size and structure vary greatly across the world. Almost every farm in China, and a majority of those in India and across Africa, is smaller than one hectare – the equivalent of a football pitch.

It’s in Europe and North America where superfarms have emerged in reality. According to the US Department of Agriculture, the largest 10% of American farms account for a majority of the nation’s output. Small farms make up just 14% of agriculture in Britain and 17% in France. And the number of farms itself is in steep decline across Europe, with farmers forced to sell land to bigger competitors.

The autonomous John Deere 8R tractor undergoing testing in the field.

Is there any way for small farms to survive as agriculture shifts gears? Is collaboration the only way forward? Will farmers who can’t keep up be able to survive in competition with those who can? Does the potential of big data and scale mean we’re heading towards a future of superfarms? Or will it put those smaller farmholdings on a stronger footing?

Artificial intelligence will make agriculture more productive, just like technology always has. But is the price a more unequal agricultural industry? With all the risks to resilience and power that comes with concentrating agricultural production in the hands of fewer and fewer farms.

Some might say that it’s already too late to answer these questions; that the speed and proliferation of tech is too chaotic to control. In that case, I’ll leave you with one final question: if AI really can feed the world, is this a small enough price to pay?

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Mark Fielding
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Driven by an acute awareness that the internet experience of his children will be vastly different to his own, Mark writes about emerging technology, particularly artificial intelligence and blockchain, with one eye always on the future. As an independent writer, he explores web3 for LVMH, metaverse events of RLTY, and writes gaming stories and lore for the highest bidder.