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Careful what you wish for… AI and the future of agriculture

AI may transform farming – and destroy livelihoods. We must manage the transition for rural societies

A man harvests oranges in El Nobaria, northeast of Cairo. If fewer workers are needed on farms, they will need retraining to find new jobs Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany
A man harvests oranges in El Nobaria, northeast of Cairo. If fewer workers are needed on farms, they will need retraining to find new jobs

The US vice president, the UN secretary general and the richest person in the world all visited the UK last week for the AI Safety Summit hosted by prime minister Rishi Sunak.

Kamala Harris, Antonio Guterres and Elon Musk joined other leaders at Bletchley Park – home of the Second World War code-breakers – to discuss the opportunities and challenges that arise from artificial intelligence.

There was much talk of disruption for economies and societies. Undoubtedly, artificial intelligence is the next big thing. So, what does AI mean for specific sectors such as agriculture? 

Agriculture is a peculiar field. As a primary sector it employs about 1 billion people worldwide, most of whom are in developing countries. The vast majority of these live economically precarious lives.

In the Middle East and North Africa, nearly half of Sudanese people are employed in agriculture, in Morocco it is slightly over a third, while in Egypt and Iraq it is a fifth. In Saudi Arabia it is only 4 percent and in Jordan only 3 percent.

Research has shown that the best way for an economy to lift itself out of poverty is for workers to leave agrarian structures and move towards blue and white-collar jobs. This is, of course, easier said than done.  

The awkward truth about AI is that, without careful moderation, it may act to aggravate global poverty levels, especially in agriculture.

Right now, for example, AI-driven technology can detect weeds and remove them from fields. This has the potential to turn industrialised farming into organic agriculture because it removes the need for pesticides, which are a major cost to farmers – all through data-driven equipment. But the technology has a downside: it can replace hundreds of workers per farm. 

The weeding equipment costs several million dollars but break-even can be achieved within a short timespan, making it a sensible investment. 

Rishi Sunak (centre) hosted the AI Safety Summit. Guests included (front, from left) European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, Vice President Kamala Harris, Italy's PM Giorgia Meloni and UN head Antonio GuterresLeon Neal/Pool via Reuters
Rishi Sunak (centre) hosted the AI Safety Summit. Guests included (front, from left) European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, Vice President Kamala Harris, Italy’s PM Giorgia Meloni and UN head Antonio Guterres

AI tools can also use data to improve water use efficiency – a major challenge for farmers in the semi-arid and arid climates of the Middle East. Weather and climate data is nowadays readily available thanks to decades of publicly funded research.

Soon, only a handful of farm workers, using a combination of automation and data, will be needed to produce high-quality crops that are far healthier to the consumer. 

AI could also spell the end for some agriculture practices that are highly questionable. Farm workers – often without the right protective clothing – spray pesticides even on the day of harvesting. In some areas in Lebanon, cancer rates in agricultural areas exceed 70 percent among villagers. In Syria, out-of-date pesticides and herbicides have been smuggled in to bypass sanctions. As a result, rice or curcuma – turmeric – can be highly enriched with either arsenic or lead residues.

To most farmers, though, the benefits of AI sound like a fairy tale. They require cheap capital to make the necessary investments. However, given the precarious economic conditions in many of the world’s rural areas, this funding is not available.

If AI technology becomes cheaper in the future and if subsidies or venture capital are on offer, this may change. Over the coming 10 years, more and more farmers in developing countries could adopt these tools, especially as population growth leads to increased demand for food. 

How do we prepare rural societies for the change?

Before this happens, and the livelihoods of small farmers or farm workers in countries such as Egypt are put at risk, we must think about how to manage the transition for rural societies.

What alternatives exist? How can farm workers be retrained to work in other industries? Without careful management of the transition, rural populations may migrate to cities only to realise that work may also be unavailable there. Should we begin to think about alternatives such as an unconditional basic income? Or could sectors like eco-tourism provide answers? 

Replacing human labour in agriculture is not a far-fetched idea. It makes perfect sense from environmental, health and cost perspectives. Yet it requires more than a gathering at Bletchley Park to discuss the social impact on rural societies in the Middle East, Africa and most of Asia.

We need a multi-year global discussion whereby the brightest on this planet are invited to contribute ideas on how to avoid social armageddon. Political, economic and social stability permit no other pathway. 

Martin Keulertz is a lecturer in environmental management at the University of the West of England, Bristol

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