Call for agricultural sector to embrace AI

Paul Benefield

The New Zealand AI Forum is calling for the nation’s agriculture sector to urgently embrace artificial intelligence, particularly when it comes to data throughout the food value chain.

The conclusion comes from a just-released AI Forum report AI for Agriculture / Ahuwhenua i te Atamai Iahiko. AI Forum executive director Ben Reid said the Forum’s research showed New Zealand urgently needs to increase its focus on the core foundations needed to operate in an AI-enabled future.

It is the Forum’s fourth report on AI in New Zealand released in the past few weeks. “Towards our Intelligent Future” released in September provided a policy framework for AI and highlighted the potential for AI to address well-being, sustainability and economic issues.

This was followed by a report into the use of AI by the health sector that said AI could contribute more than $700 million of value and savings annually by 2026, and $1.6 billion to $3.6 billion by 2035. Early in October the Forum released the results of an interview survey with employers of AI talent in NZ

The new report says there is some agricultural AI activity in New Zealand, but it is disproportionately focused behind the farmgate.

Reid said on-farm commercial activity to date appeared to be focused on sensors, precision farm data with smarter alerts, robotics and decision support.

"In the end, how we progress in shaping New Zealand’s place in the world’s food system will depend on how boldly we step up to the AI horizon,” he said.

"The conversation and activity in AI need to lift from behind the farmgate to include the whole value chain.”

Reid said the report identified how AI could be used in diverse use cases throughout the food supply chain: yield optimisation, addressing labour shortages, meat alternative research, food quality assurance, isolating disease outbreaks in animals and plants, waste reduction, biosecurity and conversion efficiency.

“AI technologies can also be applied to reducing the environmental impact of agriculture in New Zealand and supporting more sustainable practices,” he said.

“On the food testing front, we are seeing the application of AI help develop new test methods and interpret complex test outputs faster, and machine vision used as an alternative test method in some applications.

"We are starting to see digital twins of farms and orchards emerge which simulate operating and business models to allow smarter, no-risk cause and effect modelling.”

According to the report agriculture and horticulture play a dominant role in New Zealand’s economy with food exports - dairy products, meat, fruit, wine, fish and seafood - making up around 40 percent of New Zealand’s $80 billion annual exports.

“However, the agriculture sector continues to face significant ongoing challenges including climate change, low productivity growth, labour shortages, increasing regulation and environmental sustainability,” the report says.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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