Artificial Intelligence best-practices in agriculture can help bridge the digital divide while tackling food insecurity | FAO News

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Artificial Intelligence best-practices in agriculture can help bridge the digital divide while tackling food insecurity

FAO, IBM & Microsoft focus on concrete & sustainable ways Artificial Intelligence can be used in line with ethical principles endorsed by Pope Francis

24 September 2020, Rome – The Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), IBM & Microsoft, at an event organized today with the Pontifical Academy for Life, relaunched a commitment towards developing forms of Artificial Intelligence (AI) that are inclusive & promote sustainable ways to achieve food & nutrition security.

The aim of the online event: AI, Food for All. Dialogue & Experiences is to reinforce & build upon the Rome Call for AI Ethics endorsed by Pope Francis & co-signed by FAO, IBM & Microsoft at a conference hosted by the Academy in February.

Today’s discussions also focused on concrete ways through which AI can contribute to achieving the goal of feeding an estimated global population of nearly 10 billion by 2050, & to do this while safeguarding natural resources & addressing challenges such as climate change & the impacts of shocks including COVID-19.

Examples of best practices in the use of AI & digital technology in agriculture, & which are openly accessible in the form of digital public goods, were also presented.

“The implementation of clearly Western technologies in food production & food processing significantly affects the food cultures of the populations of the Earth. We must feed everyone, but not everyone must necessarily eat the same things,” said Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, President of the Pontifical Academy for Life. The protection of biological diversity (human, plant, animal diversity) must be the focus of our attention & must guide the whole process, from the design phases (ethics by design) to the way in which these are proposed & spread in different social & cultural contexts,” he added.

“Transforming our food systems requires innovative solutions to ensure food security & nutrition for all,” said FAO Director-General QU Dongyu. At FAO, together with the development of AI tools, we work towards the establishing the International Platform for Digital Food & Agriculture – an inclusive multi-stakeholder forum for identifying & discussing the potential benefits & risks of digitalization of the food & agricultural sectors. For this aspect we really appreciate & expect colleagues from the AI & the digital giants to offer us assistance, cooperation & engagement to help the (FAO) member countries & the farmers,'” he added.

“As society has grappled with an alarming public health emergency, uses of technology in response to COVID-19 have only underscored why the Rome Call for AI Ethics & its underlying principles are so critical to humanity’s future,” said John E. Kelly, III, IBM’s Executive Vice President. “Only by putting people, their interests & their values at the center of our thinking about the future of technology can we all emerge stronger from global challenges such as the pandemic & food security.”

“At Microsoft, we believe technology can help unlock solutions for some of the world’s biggest challenges,” said Microsoft President Brad Smith. “Technologies such as AI & Machine Learning tools will be particularly helpful as we work to address worldwide hunger & food insecurity issues, especially in a world grappling with climate change. These tools can forecast issues & respond with critical resources that help prevent future famines & save lives.”

AI in agriculture, a crucial opportunity to achieve sustainable development

Artificial Intelligence has an important role to play in transforming food systems & helping to address food & nutrition insecurity. In the agricultural sectors, it can do so in several ways, including optimizing or even carrying out some human activities, such as planting & harvesting, thus increasing productivity, improving working conditions – by reducing the amount of time & toil – & using natural resources more efficiently, including through better knowledge management & planning.

In particular, as e-agriculture technology advances rapidly, AI in farming is emerging in three major areas: agricultural robotics, soil & crop monitoring, & predictive analytics. Progress in these areas can, in the context of climate change, population growth & depleting natural resources, contribute greatly to soil & water conservation which are increasingly key to achieving food security in a sustainable way.

At today’s event, two examples of best practices in the use of AI in agriculture were presented:

  • FAO’s WaPOR portal which monitors & reports on agriculture water productivity over Africa & the Near East. It provides open access to the water productivity database & its thousands of underlying map layers, & also allows for direct data queries, time series analyses, area statistics & data download of key variables associated to water & land productivity assessments;
  • The Agricultural Stress Index System (ASIS) is a quick-look indicator developed by FAO for the early monitoring of agricultural areas with a high likelihood of water stress/drought at global, regional & country level, using satellite technology. Drought affects more people than any other type of natural disaster & is the most damaging to livelihoods, especially in developing countries.

Putting people, including farmers, at the centre

The Rome Call for AI Ethics stresses that “AI systems must be conceived, designed & implemented to serve & protect human beings & the environment in which they live,” a concept that many participants at today’s event reiterated.

Underpinning the Rome Call are several key principles including: transparency, in that AI systems must be explainable; inclusion, so that the needs of all human beings are taken into account & they are offered the best possible conditions to express themselves & develop; & impartiality, so that such technologies do not create or act according to bias, to the advantage of just a few.

In relation to these principles, & in the context of the use of AI in agriculture, the partners & co-signatories to the Rome Call recognize the need to protect the rights of farmers & the knowledge that they possess, particularly those in developing countries. There is also a need to bridge the digital divide – 6 billion people are without broadband today, 4 billion without internet, 2 billion without mobile phones & 400 million people are without a digital signal & there are also significant gaps in access to resources between men & women, young & old

The partners to the Rome Call have urged countries & the public sector, to take advantage of the opportunities presented by AI to support small-scale farmers & enhance rural development, poverty eradication & improvement of food security. To do so they should invest in human capital & put in place policies & regulations that minimize the risk of exclusion & inequality.

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