With a burgeoning world population, accelerated climate change, supply costs growing like Iowa corn and a persistent global labor shortage, agribusiness is investing in robotics, artificial intelligence (AI) and other technologies known collectively as precision agriculture. But while it’s easy to find passionate advocates of such sci-fi solutions as weed-pulling robot dogs, as described in this article in Undark, key questions remain unanswered: Are the benefits real, and will farmers buy in?
Meanwhile, another promising AI-driven food innovation technology is vertical farming. While not as sexy as robots that pull weeds or pick raspberries (or as useful in your backyard), vertical farming is further along, using AI, robotics and data science to optimize temperatures, light levels, humidity, feeding and the thousand other variables that have always vexed (human) farmers.
As we’ve discussed previously, and as this recent report from the World Economic Forum notes, vertical farming can not only make use of spaces never before considered arable, such as mine shafts; it also moves food production closer to center cities, which reduces transport costs and environmental impacts. It also produces mind-boggling yields (some plants can be harvested 15 times a year, compared with twice annually in traditional settings).
To be sure, vertical farming presents drawbacks that must be overcome. For starters, while sunlight and rain are free, albeit unpredictable, precision watering and lighting are most assuredly not—and if they rely on fossil fuels, they exacerbate one of the very problems vertical farming seeks to address. Moreover, that real estate close to population centers is expensive, as well.
The Cognizant take
“Precision agriculture, especially vertical farming, provides new, innovative ways to produce food more efficiently and with few environmental or social negative impacts,” says Jenny Edwards, Principal Sustainability Advisor at Cognizant's Sustainability Services practice.
That’s vital right now, she adds, because “while food production systems are under increasing external threats, the need has never been greater for increased efficiency, improved yields and reduced impacts. Innovation provides a way for farmers to address those threats—and, in addition, creates true business opportunities.”