Our nation needs to accelerate artificial intelligence for farm tech

This originally appeared in the Des Moines Register.

In anticipation of the Refresh: Food + Tech launch on December 5, we’re excited to share this Op Ed from former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Danielle Nierenberg, Refresh Working Group member and president of Food Tank.

Melissa Brandao, a former Apple engineer, wanted to find ways to give back to her rural agricultural community in southern Oregon. Rather than traditional farming, though, she began designing robots to provide farmers with extra sets of eyes, ears and wheels out in the field.

Brandao developed such breakthrough innovations as the first autonomous ATV for hauling loads and navigating narrow rows between tightly planted crops. Most recently, she created the HerdDogg system of smart wearable devices for cattle management, which was first piloted with the Dairy Farmers of America. Today, more than 50 farmers nationwide use these tools to monitor and improve the health of their herds.

Her story shows how emerging technologies are not just the province of Silicon Valley or major metropolitan centers; nor are they only for the benefit of major corporations and investment firms. Rather, independent farmers and merchants alike are helping to drive new innovations across the nation’s food supply chain, as stated in the recent “Refresh: Food + Tech, from Soil to Supper” report produced by Google, Food Tank, Swell Creative Group and their partners. It features more than 20 concrete examples of the ways technological innovations are helping not only food producers, but distributors and consumers as well — from farm to fridge to gut.

These innovations are vital to our economy, our society and our planet. They could be real game changers for folks working across the food sector, which supports roughly 28% of all American jobs and accounts for 20% of the total economy, according to a recent Dunn and Associates report.

New technologies offer the necessary tools to nurture the growth and sustainability of local and regional food systems, a cornerstone of healthy communities and economies. A prosperous national food system requires investment and economic growth in rural America in order to support sustainable food production, optimize food distribution and manage food waste efficiently. In the United States alone, the USDA estimates that 30-40 percent of the food supply is wasted. That’s enough food to feed the more than 20 million Americans who don’t know where their next meal will come from or who go hungry.

While this problem is not just a technical one, the Refresh report shows some of the ways that software solutions are helping to address food security. An artificial intelligence (AI) program called FreshAI reportedly reduces perishable food waste to under 10% by using algorithmic software to redistribute perishable food rather than allow it to spoil on the shelf. Ushering in the food bank of the future, the Fed40 app leverages AI technology to deliver nutritious dehydrated meals made up of lentils, rice, oats and apples to food-insecure families who might not have the time to drive out to a food bank.

These are great success stories that make it clear that data-driven innovation is quickly becoming part of the necessary infrastructure for the nation’s food system. But without public and private investments in infrastructure like rural broadband access and affordable, user-friendly technologies that can be easily integrated into local and regional food systems, these innovations will be stifled before they can reach their potential. Policy makers and companies need to ensure broad adoption and integration of advanced technologies throughout the U.S. food supply chain, spanning farms, food hubs, farmers’ markets and family fridges.

And the more widely technology is adopted, the more affordable it will become. An agricultural drone equipped with a high-definition camera cost between $10,000-$30,000 in 2012. Today, it can be purchased for as little as $1,500.  The pace of technological change has only accelerated. New breakthroughs will be integrated ever faster into the farm of the future. With the right public-private support and policies, these tools can be made available to everyone, benefiting farmers and consumers alike. By looking to rural America as a critical site of innovation, we can ensure that more people follow in Melissa Brandao’s footsteps to help advance the future of food.

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