When there is discussion about artificial intelligence (AI), it often focuses on apocalyptic scenarios, where robots take over the world. In reality, however, as research from the World Economic Forum (WEF) shows, AI is actually part of a quiet revolution that is helping to feed the world’s poor. However, is the future as rosy, or is there a downside?
Farming and food security
Globally, around 600 million people are estimated to be undernourished: that is, the amount of energy that they consume in their diet is lower than a defined threshold. This situation is expected to worsen as the global population increases. Experts have estimated that by 2050, farming will need to supply almost 70% more in calories that it does today.
This is a huge increase in productivity. It is, in fact, generally considered to be almost impossible to achieve without serious changes to agriculture. Currently, farming uses around half of all habitable land. A further 37% is forest and 11% shrubland—and we know about the devastating consequences of deforestation on soil quality and rivers, not to mention carbon emissions. Farmers clearly cannot simply use more land to grow and raise more food.
This is where AI comes in. AI-driven approaches are already being used in farming to improve the productivity of traditional farms, for example, by identifying and treating pests and diseases early and specifically, to avoid the expense and potential damage of broad pesticide and herbicide use.
However, other AI applications aim to revolutionise farming completely. For example, work in South America is aiming to disrupt industrial meat supply by using algorithms to analyse plant data and identify how to create alternatives the mirror the taste and texture of meat. This work is still at a very early stage, but offers potential, provided we are prepared to change our dietary habits.
Introducing vertical farming
A more advanced proposal is vertical farming. Europe’s first vertical farm was piloted in Paignton, Devon, UK, in 2011. This used an approach called high density vertical growing, which is a hydroponic method, with advanced irrigation systems and no soil. It therefore removes the need for good agricultural land, and also means that crops can be grown nearer to cities, where they are most likely to be consumed.
The pilot project grew over 10,000 plants in a greenhouse that was just 100m2, focusing on salad and other green leaves. It aimed to improve feeding for the animals at Paignton Zoo, but highlighted the potential of vertical farms, especially in cities. Since then, other companies and farms have taken up the challenge, including Infarm in Germany, which grows vegetables in vertical containers within supermarkets and restaurants. In the UK, the Jones Farming Company opened Europe’s largest vertical farm in late 2018, with over 5000m2 of growing space.
However, as anyone who has ever gardened with a greenhouse will know, indoor gardening is not without costs. The use of water may be 90% more efficient in hydroponic systems, but there is a cost in energy terms.
According to an Octopus, the cost of energy can be up to 40% of the total costs of vertical farms. CEA technology suggests that the energy cost could be anywhere between about $3.45 and $8.02 per square foot. And, of course, this is not just about the cost to the farmer, but the cost to the planet of generating the energy. Does this mean that sustainable farming is not as sustainable as it looks?
Delivering genuine sustainability
Vertical farming can certainly be extremely costly in energy terms—and careless expansion of these techniques could mean a huge increase in carbon emissions. However, there are ways to reduce the carbon footprint of vertical farms. For example, the Jones Farming Company, in Lincolnshire, uses solar-powered energy, reused water, and compostable packaging. Octopus Energy, a green energy supplier in the UK, has also come up with an ingenious way to help. It now offers an agile tariff for businesses to encourage business consumers to shift consumption to off-peak hours. Octopus estimates that this could reduce the costs for businesses by up to 12%. It also reduces demand on the grid, and maximises use of energy generated at low-demand hours, avoiding waste.
Delivering sustainable farming is hard, and requires effort from farmers and energy companies alike. However, it seems that we are now reaching the point where it may be possible to feed the world without it costing the earth.