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AI for dinner

A very interesting graph representing how we use our planet to feed ourselves. Land surface represents 29% of the total planet surface. 50% of habitable land is dedicated to “food”, 77% of which to livestock, meat and dairy, the remaining 23% to crops. Yet crops provide 82% of the calories humankind use and 63% of protein supply. Image credit: Our World in Data, data source UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO)

Since humans understood they could plan for “food” through agriculture and livestock the surface of our planet has changed. Some species have spread to become dominant, like rice, wheat, barley … and chicken, cattle, pigs …

As shown in the graph, 50% of habitable land is now dedicated to “food”, of this 77% to livestock and 23% to crops. Interestingly, we derive 82%of our calories need (as a whole) from crops as well as 63% of protein needs.

The problem is that the human population, now totalling 7.7 billion, is expected to keep growing in this century (reaching 10 billion in 2050 and 11.2 billion at the A end of this century).

Placing further pressure on habitable land is not good, that is increasing the part used for agriculture and decrease the forest and shrubs part.

Hence, looking at these figures it becomes obvious the need to shift towards the production of crops, decreasing the use of habitable land for livestock and increasing the one for crops. This shift requires a cultural change in our way of looking (and consuming) food and that will take time. In parallel. scientists are looking at ways to increase the yield of crops and here artificial intelligence can play a significant role.

According to an interesting article published by WEF, summarising the outcome from the Sustainable Development Impact Summit, artificial intelligence can be used to:

  • leverage on big data “harvested” by sensors in the field to detect pest and disease outbreak. An example is Prospera, an Israeli company, using data analytics and AI exploiting the data collected from 50 million points in 4,700 fields leading to decrease used of pesticides and increasing the yield of crops
  • create vertical fields, vertical indoor agriculture, and using computer vision and artificial intelligence to monitor the crop and robots to tend the crop and harvest. Companies like Aerofarms, Plenty and Root AI (watch the clip) are examples of this trend. Vertical agriculture cannot replace the normal agriculture, however the yield is impressive. By using AI and robotic technologies vertical farming can produce 20 times more per acre using 90% less water.
  • create food from plants having the same flavour of meat based food. This might seem a surprising application of AI, and indeed it was a discover for me. Companies like Fazenda Futuro and NotCo  are using artificial intelligence to build a library of thousands of plants and find how to use them to recreate the same feeling of eating meat (look, smell, texture, taste). In the end we might all become vegetarian through technology!

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.