Will artificial intelligence save Philippine agriculture?
BIZLINKS - Rey Gamboa (The Philippine Star) - April 2, 2019 - 12:00am

The Philippines has one of the region’s lowest farm productivity yields, which has led to low incomes for farming families, a dwindling farmer population and decreasing farm land area.

The recent removal of tariff protection on importation of many agricultural products, including rice, is expected to contribute further to the decline of the farm sector.

While the recent round of tariff liberalization is intended by government to be temporary until measures are put in place to reinvigorate the agricultural sector, many fear that the coming influx of imported rice and vegetables will ultimately kill our farmers.

Yet, if the money that has been set aside under the recently passed rice tariffication law will be put to good use, there can be hope for millions of our farmers to earn a decent living from the sweat of their efforts.

Well, not exactly the same number of buckets that agricultural workers usually do sweat whenever they work the fields – that is, if we can believe technology pundits who now say that one of the fastest areas where artificial intelligence (AI) will find best use is in agriculture.

An article in ScienticAmerican.com on how smarter technology may be able to feed the world deserves some attention. The author, Ayal Karmi, wrote how hunger and malnutrition on an estimated 821 million people will be a major driving force that will push change to happen sooner than we expect.

Real time data and precision farming

Companies like Google are now helping farmers to improve yields and optimize production through AI and geographic information system (GIS) software. Data crunching will be able to tell a farmer when to plant and harvest depending on land and atmospheric conditions, as well as weather and almost anything that can affect farming success.

In fact, Karmi says that farming will increasingly be dependent on real-time data provided by all-in-one platforms that employ precision sensors to measure light, humidity, temperature, soil moisture, and other information that a farmer needs to know.

There will be apps also that will be able to help farmers decide on the best agricultural products to invest in based on collected information of global market trends and prices.

The best example of how the Internet of Things (IoT) will be used by farmers is through agricultural drones. According to Karmi, these will provide precise, highly detailed 3D maps for soil and field analysis as well as other information on irrigation and crop management.

Drone-based agriculture is expected to reduce planting costs by 85 percent, and can decrease pesticide use by as much as 30 percent through precision crop spraying.

Driverless tractors

From theinnovationenterprise.com, Justus Ayanda writes about AI’s role in transforming agriculture. Driverless tractors, which were inspired by the continuing successes in the development of driverless vehicles, will be able to till land, and do other agricultural tasks that require mobility, but without the physical presence of an onboard person as a driver.

Several technology sectors in the world have been developing adaptations of driverless vehicle technology for quite some time, and agriculture is no different. Ayanda quotes Kelsi Burley of CBD Central as saying that the self-driving tractors will be feasible within the next decade.

In fact, unlike driverless commuter vehicles that need to recognize the challenges of navigating busy city roads full of people and other vehicles, driverless tractors may prove to be quicker to manage in farms where the environment is more tightly controlled.

Pilot project in India

In 10 districts found in seven states in India, Microsoft with International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), a non-profit, non-political organization, are testing an AI sowing app powered by Microsoft Cortana Intelligence Suite including Machine Learning and Power BI.

The app is able to tell participating farmers through a phone that can at least receive text messages the best date to plant; there is no need to install expensive sensors in their fields since data will be gathered by satellites and stored in the cloud.

The app also uses historical climate data during the past three decades to come up with a moisture adequacy index (MAI) to determine the best sowing period. MAI is an accepted measurement for assessing rainfall and soil moisture, and when used with recorded daily rainfall, provides useful data for farmers to decide when to sow.

Other data that the Microsoft app is capable of giving helps to farmers decide how much fertilizer and manure should be applied, and how to treat seeds. A personalized community advisory dashboard will also provide information on soil health, and keep seven-day weather forecasts.

The app is also capable of flagging in advance any risk of pest attacks to help farmers prepare through preventive measures. Also captured by the app are temperature increases, changes in rain pattern and levels, and ground water density.

The pilot project, which is still in its early stage, is already showing immense potential, especially in India where climate and agricultural conditions have become more challenging.

More mouths to feed

Like India, the Philippines too can benefit from technology interventions that would help the country improve its food production. By the turn of the decade, demographers are pointing to our population hitting just about 110 million.

With an unbridled population growth of 1.6 percent a year, the Philippines would be more than 150 million by 2050. That’s a lot of mouths to feed, and one of our government’s better options would be to improve our agriculture so that it will be capable of feeding our people come hell or high water.

All this talk about climate changes, melting glaciers, and rising seas should prompt us to take our own food production more seriously.

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Should you wish to share any insights, write me at Link Edge, 25th Floor, 139 Corporate Center, Valero Street, Salcedo Village, 1227 Makati City. Or e-mail me at reydgamboa@yahoo.com. For a compilation of previous articles, visit www.BizlinksPhilippines.net.

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