According to a UN report on the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, 811 million people in the world went hungry in 2020. The same report estimates that 118 million people in the world suffer from chronic hunger.
Some innovators are completely awake to these truths, and are dreaming up ways to leverage new technology to address these harsh realities. In fact, machine learning and other AI-driven technology aren’t just in the dream phase of providing solutions to global food insecurity, they are on the ground and in action.
Unsustainable Farming Practices
Many times, when technology is considered as a solution for agriculture, it is a big business proposition brought to major players. In the United States, there are approximately 2.02 million farms. The average size of these farms is 444 acres. Agriculture makes up about 0.6% of the GDP in the U.S., much of which is generated by large farms. Gross cash farm income (GCFI) is dominated by increasingly big farms, and smaller family farms struggle to survive. This dynamic is replicated in numerous contexts worldwide.
Part of the reason smaller family farms can’t produce enough to feed more than their own families or communities, and themselves may struggle with food insecurity, is that they lack technological solutions to monitor soil conditions, improve livestock management, and streamline operations. The problems that require solutions are frequently connected to the outcomes of generations of unsustainable farming practices.
Chemicals, deforestation, overproduction, and even insidious practices within agribusiness have all contributed to the current state of farming worldwide. Add in climate change, and farmers are undeniably in an uphill battle to preserve and restore the land. Without a systematized way to monitor soil conditions, and expert guidance on what the land needs, farmers may be unable to adapt in time.
AI Solutions To Restore Land
One company is not only making technology and experts available, it’s making them globally accessible to small farmers first. Dimitra is one of the voices advocating for data-driven farming. Founder Jon Trask spent years in technology and business development, working as a consultant with Big 4 consulting firms, and on projects that moved billions of dollars of product through the supply chain.
Tapping his expansive global network of government and business leaders, Trask began to investigate opportunities to help farmers. He explains, “In the conversations with the different ministries of agriculture around the world, I started seeing a real need. Large tech companies are working to serve big farms. There are 608,000,000 farms in the world and 38,000,000 of those are well-served by the big tech companies. The rest are completely ignored.”
Those “rest,” the small farmers who are akin to an endangered species, became his point of focus.
Two main projects illustrate how the technology Trask developed is currently at work in the world, supporting small farmers:
Degraded Soil Conditions On Indian Farms
Dimitra is under contract to serve 1.3 million Indian farms. The Dimitra platform is configured to use satellites to evaluate crop performance, supplement that data with farmer observations and IoT soil sensors, then feed that information into a machine learning algorithm to help farmers make better decisions about how to prepare, sow, care for, and harvest crops, then get them to market.
This group of Indian farms has very degraded soil conditions, which isn’t unique to India. It’s a common problem all over the world. Recognizing the scope of this problem, Dimitra solutions has to overcome the impossibility of getting soil specialists out to 1.3 million farms. While they are deploying consultants in addition to the data, the day-by-day effectiveness is all digital.
Trask explains, “We’re expanding our current capability and segmenting the data that we can see from satellites, then trying to regionalize and build a number of categories of soil condition. Then, we’re going to take about 1,000 people for a couple of years and we’re going to send them around to a large number of these farms to take soil samples. Then we’re going to create a relationship between what we see from space to what we see from a drone to what we see on the ground, when we’re holding the soil in our hand.”
The outcome is simple soil remediation plans, built along with the chamber of commerce for agriculture, and farmers actively engaging on the Dimitra platform. Farmers can log in and load all types of information and their specific action plan. That user-generated data can be viewed alongside soil sensor data, drone data, and satellite data. Using machine learning, they extract fresh insights that can inform the soil remediation efforts allowing farmers to adopt sustainable practices. The power of Dimitra is to do something so farm-specific on a large scale.
Livestock Management Through Technology
A second project Dimitra is working on is in Uganda, at the National Animal Genetics Research Center (NAGRC). With that group, they are building a system that allows them to use historical and genetic data around the parentage of cattle, and find out ways to improve the health of cattle. The result is easier births for heifers and an increased milk or beef output.
The team at Dimitra has built a genetic platform, which is being continuously modified as they identify characteristics they want to study further. Around 400 scientists are working on animal welfare and managing the health of animals, which is a mission critical endeavor in the agriculturally-dependent economy in east Africa. To accommodate it, researchers use the “My Livestock” feature in the platform to track animals.
Talks with the government’s ministry of agriculture have made two things clear: in this developing nation, the need for nutrition is acute, especially for young people. Secondly, the ability to increase exports can address painful issues of poverty. “My Livestock” is one of Dimitra’s flagship products, as building identity systems for this use can address the otherwise imminent threats faced by countries around the world.
More Food For The World Population
A billion people on the planet go hungry every night and don’t have enough nutrition. The average smallholder farmer is four hectares. That farmer produces crops mainly to feed their family (surrounding and extended). They consume about 80% of what they produce. Dimitra’s goal is to use data and machine learning tools to increase their output by 20%. If those farmers were only taking 20% of their food to market before, that change essentially doubles their income.
Sustainable farming must be normalized, and the tools given to farmers must represent the best the world of technology has to offer. Trask understands that peers in the world of business, and even investors, have doubted the ROI of investing in small farms. He admits that there is good reason to do so, but he sees it from a different angle, “This underserved group of farmers represents the production of almost 70% of the food in the world. Increasing output and revenue by 20%, if we distribute it right and don’t waste it, theoretically it could solve the world hunger crisis.”
As Trask puts it, “Using Dimitra artificial intelligence and technology in general, they can double their productivity hence increase their income and produce more food for the world population.”
There is no sector of the market in any area of the world untouched by agriculture. It is the literal bread and butter that remains foundational to world economies. The idea of starting small to go big may feel underwhelming, but the potential is anything but.
Trask sums it up this way, “Dimitra is democratizing farming for the smallholder farmers by providing the operating system for agriculture in the future, changing and improving the lives of smallholder farmers and the lives of all helping to fight poverty, soil degradation, hunger.”
Farmers not only are feeding the world: with the right tools, they have the ability to change many of the world’s biggest problems.
originally posted on forbes.com by Annie Brown
About Author: Annie Brown is the founder of Lips, a feminist technology organization at the forefront of the inclusive design movement, building products designed to unlock opportunities for previously underserved and intersectionally marginalized communities. Currently, Lips is building more inclusive Machine Learning and Contextual AI technologies that can be used across industries to improve the online experience of traditionally marginalized communities.