How AI is helping farmers keep up with sustainable food production

a farmer uses a tablet to analyze his land

Nearly 1 in 3 people worldwide lack regular access to adequate food.

Resources once considered plentiful have been hit by the combined effects of an ever-growing world population and climate change, leading to rising global temperatures and extreme weather.

Last year, Europe experienced a summer drought that was believed to be the worst in at least 500 years. In many places across Europe, this was followed by sparse rainfall during winter and water supply now declared “very precarious” by a group of scientists based in Austria, leading some EU governments to pass national water strategies with urgency.

Agriculture is among the sectors most impacted, experiencing poorer harvests and higher production costs. In turn, this is affecting price, quantity and quality of yields. As a strong contributor to water use – accounting for 24% of water withdrawal in the EU – the agricultural sector is now looking towards technology, powered by data and AI, as a route to reducing its water consumption and overall environmental footprint while continuing to nutritiously feed the population more sustainably.

The vital importance of data-led agriculture was the focus for Microsoft’s Chief Technology Officer for Agri-Food, Ranveer Chandra, during the Forum for the Future of Agriculture’s 2023 Annual Conference earlier this week.

“Our goal is to build tools that help all individuals and organizations, including farmers, to achieve more,” Chandra explained during his talk on how we can use technology to grow more food, more sustainably. “The soil is not getting any richer; the water levels are receding; there is climate change – these make the farmers’ life much harder. One approach that can help is that of data-driven agriculture, where our goal is not to replace the farmer but to augment the farmer’s knowledge with data and AI.”

The availability of affordable internet-connected sensors – underpinned by cloud technology, AI and machine learning – enables farmers to capture and track operational data, whether it’s from the soil, equipment or livestock. That data can then help generate insights to apply precision agriculture or predictions farmers can use as they look to improve yields while conserving precious resources, including water.

Using AI technology such as Project FarmVibes.AI, which runs on Microsoft Azure, it is possible to predict and plot the ideal amounts of fertilizer and herbicide required based on the level of soil nutrients, forecast temperatures and wind speeds across their fields, determine the ideal depth to plant seeds or irrigation needs based on soil moisture, and guide how different crops and practices can keep carbon sequestered in the soil.

Through these digital tools, farmers can augment their capabilities and knowledge about their farm with data and AI, helping them to make the best choices for optimizing harvests with the input of minimal resources, including water and fertilizer.

During his talk, Chandra explained that, even though farmers have special knowledge of their farms, often after decades, if not generations of experience, a lot of their decisions, such as when or where to fertilize, are still based on rough estimates. Microsoft’s vision, he said, is augmenting farmer’s knowledge so that they can make much more informed decisions: “Our goal is to remove guesswork and replace it with data and AI.”

Utilizing advanced monitoring systems to track the consumption of water and fertilizers, farms can play a part in addressing the roughly 10% of EU greenhouse gas emissions, including nitrous oxide from fertilizer use, generated by the sector and drive Europe toward the urgent transformation needed to achieve more sustainable food systems.

By better monitoring of greenhouse gas emissions, water use and pollution, the agricultural sector can take action to help Europe reach both its Farm to Fork objectives to reduce the environmental and climate footprint of the EU food system and biodiversity goals as part of the Biodiversity Strategy for 2030. This will be made possible by more robust AI-powered reporting capabilities providing actionable environmental data on a scale once thought impossible.

As consumers and investors increase pressure on companies to be transparent about their agricultural sourcing, sustainability practices and supply-chain due diligence, new processes and standards are required to build trust. Tools such as the recently announced Azure Data Manager for Agriculture help automate how environmental data is captured, stored and analyzed. Farmers need to spend less time and effort on “manually” capturing this data and can report on their environmental progress in a more accurate and detailed fashion.

Transforming the agricultural sector with data-driven innovations also contributes to achieving the EU’s Green Deal and the new Common Agricultural Policy objectives.

The creation of a common European agricultural data space (AgriDataSpace) promises to bring together huge amounts of data from multiple agri-food sources helping to optimize the economic and environmental performance of the farming sector and create additional services for farmers.

Europe is also leading the way to improve soil health and transform food production with ambitious targets to reduce the sector’s environmental footprint. The forthcoming new Soil Health Law will be the first of its kind and its success will depend on measurable, quality data.

A policy framework based on the EU’s vision for a green and digital transformation will support and promote the potential of AI in agriculture and help the sector produce high-quality nutritious food that is grown sustainably.

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