Skip to content Skip to Search
Skip navigation

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

Latest articles

More than 24 million people visited the World Expo event at Expo City Dubai between October 2021 and March 2022

Construction begins at Expo City Dubai site

Construction has begun on the first residential properties at Expo City Dubai, part of a mixed-use master plan to repurpose the legacy site after the world fair came to a close two years ago. Master developer Expo City Dubai announced last week that it has awarded four key contracts for its Mangrove Residences. UAE-based USF […]

Saudi housing costs rose nearly 9% year on year in May

Saudi housing costs rise but inflation remains steady

Housing costs in Saudi Arabia rose nearly 9 percent year on year in May, but it was not enough to push overall inflation in the kingdom over 2 percent. The latest data from the General Authority for Statistics showed the annual inflation rate in Saudi Arabia was 1.6 percent in May, having remained at this […]

OTB Group has a presence in Dubai with its Maison Margiela store in the Dubai Mall

Chalhoub Group in venture with Italian luxury brand

Luxury distributor Chalhoub Group has entered into a joint venture with Italian fashion conglomerate OTB Group to expand the brand’s footprint in the Gulf. OTB (which stands for Only The Brave) owns the Diesel, Jil Sander, Maison Margiela, Marni and Viktor&Rolf brands, the Staff International and Brave Kid companies, and holds a stake in the […]

Rwandan flag carrier RwandAir has access to Qatar Airways’ network due to a code-share agreement with the Gulf airline

Qatar Airways to buy 49% of Rwanda’s flag carrier

Qatar Airways is expected to buy a 49 percent stake in Rwanda’s flag carrier RwandAir as early as July as part of the Gulf airline’s strategy to expand in Africa, according to a media report. Qatar Airways’ purchase will boost Rwanda’s aviation sector and allow RwandAir to expand its operations and fleet, Financial Times reported, quoting […]