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Jordan Lee: The potential for AI in agriculture

Jordan Lee, the Conservative Environment Network's Nature Programme Manager

Fresh from meeting President Biden to discuss the West’s approach to artificial intelligence, and speaking at London’s Tech Week, the Prime Minister is looking to grasp the opportunities the technology promises. AI has the potential to change every aspect of our lives, with some suggesting that it could threaten our very existence. Few have considered the positive impact it could have in agriculture.

Our farmers are out in all weather, toiling away to produce the food we eat. They are also the custodians of some of our most precious landscapes, and their work to conserve the natural environment is vital to meet our net zero and nature recovery targets. But what if there was a way they could farm the land without ever having to step foot on it?

Harper Adams’ Hands-Free Farm in Shropshire is a farm like no other. Stretching over 35 acres, you will struggle to find a single farmer. Instead, a fleet of autonomous machines roams the site and farms the land without any direct human input. The machines used are smaller than standard farm equipment. Being lighter, smaller machines, they compact the soil less than larger tractors, improving its health and boosting crop yields. Whilst this means they cover less ground, they have one major advantage over their human counterparts. Unlike humans, robots don’t need to sleep. This means they can work around the clock, improving productivity and freeing farmers’ time to focus on other things, such as more difficult nature recovery projects, training fellow farmers, or establishing new businesses to boost their income.

Precision farming is a technique which relies on intense data collection to manage crops’ health in real-time. This can be more labour-intensive, but with the potential to increase crop yields, reduce input costs, and improve soil health. Used correctly, AI systems could help with precision farming and empower farmers to make more informed decisions.

Good soil health is essential to improving both the quantity and quality of crop yields. The ground beneath our feet also plays a crucial role in the fight against climate change by locking in carbon. But intensive farming has left many sites in poor condition. A 2019 report from the Environment Agency found that almost four million hectares of soil are at risk of compaction, and a further two million hectares are at risk of erosion. If we do not reverse this decline, we could face food shortages and countless farms would lay in ruin.

With the correct data collection, autonomous vehicles could improve the health of our soil and boost crop yields. Machines could be programmed to plant seed types best suited to the soil condition, ensuring the correct number are planted at the right distance and depth. This approach would also reduce the need for tilling - which tears through and compacts soil layers - helping regenerate farmers’ land and improve the state of nature.

Drones fitted with surveillance equipment could also be deployed to fly over crop fields and monitor their health - covering far greater distances and travelling at faster speeds than any tractor. Equipped with the correct monitoring equipment, they may also be able to take soil samples, or even identify and root out invasive species.

Agricultural labour shortages are a global problem, particularly so in the UK. Using autonomous machines could reduce farmers’ reliance on unskilled labourers and create more high-skilled jobs to service the new equipment.

Of course, most farmers are not trained robotics engineers. Fixing an autonomous vehicle or programming AI is likely to be more difficult for many compared with servicing their existing machinery. To mitigate this problem, it may make more sense for manufacturers and farmers to shift to hire purchase, with the cost of hiring their machinery including maintenance and technical support. This comes with the added bonus of being completely tax deductible, circumventing the government’s ill-advised cut on equipment purchase tax relief from £1 million to £200,000.

Telematics, where manufacturers monitor live data to check for problems, often before the user has even noticed, could also help to reduce the burden on farmers adapting to new technology or needing to learn how to repair complex machinery.

Put all of this together, and it is possible that tomorrow's farms will be managed remotely, with crops planted and routinely monitored by autonomous machines. Programmed correctly, AI could help to improve the health of our soil and restore our natural world.

However, AI should not be confused for a silver bullet to the multitude of problems facing farmers. Legislators are historically poor at regulating new technologies. The ‘here today gone tomorrow’ nature of democracy naturally makes it harder to think long-term and autocracies’ need to control their citizenry stifles innovation. Given the vast quantities of data that AI will be required to handle if it is to be deployed effectively in industry, it is important that policymakers ensure that the right safeguards are in place to protect against abuses.

Farmers would be understandably hesitant. Their slim profit margins, recent global events, changes to government support structures, and our climate mean it will be hard to persuade them to adopt new, untested technologies, particularly given the high upfront capital costs. This will require more research into the capabilities of AI in agriculture, a clear regulatory framework, and more cooperation between government, academia and industry to work on incentives for farmers to trial and adopt this technology.

Fleets of autonomous tractors may not be seen roaming the fields for some time to come. But if scientific innovation continues at this pace, and as experiments like those at Harper Adams show, farmers could dream of electric sheep.


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