Calgary Economic Development and Western Economic Development Canada released an Agribusiness Market Study in September 2020 detailing prospects for growth in regional and global markets for the agribusiness sector in Calgary and southern Alberta. This article is one of a series of stories about the study.
As an industry where so many variables can affect outcomes and the work is incredibly labour-intensive, agriculture couldn’t be a more perfect sector for artificial intelligence adoption.
Artificial intelligence, or AI, holds a lot of promise for the sector with high-tech solutions to lower costs and improve farm productivity and crop yields. The agribusiness industry in Alberta has been a leading early adopter of technology in recent years as digital transformation drives our economy.
Alberta’s agriculture and agri-food products are exported to more than 150 countries, and our exports have more than doubled in the last 10 years. The increased use of AI in our agribusiness sector will not only help the industry continue to grow and attract investments, it will also allow Alberta to produce and export safer, more secure food in an efficient and effective way.
As defined by Merriam-Webster, artificial intelligence is “the imitation of human behaviour by machines.” Today, we’re seeing a variety of advanced technologies fall under the AI umbrella, not just in agricultural settings here in southern Alberta, but around the world.
Cutting-edge digital technologies, including precision agriculture, are transforming the sector. Globally, the use of artificial intelligence in agriculture is expected to grow by more than 25 per cent a year through 2025.
We’re just scratching the surface on what AI could achieve.
AI and Ag in action
Those who know farming know the many variables in play at any given point of the season. So, the more you can monitor, account for, and address your variables, the better your outcome should be.
It makes perfect sense that the main application of AI in the sector has been in precision agriculture: the use of technologies to optimize yield and profitability while working to maximize the efficiency of resources such as fertilizer, even reducing the use of pesticides.
Under the umbrella of precision agriculture alone, we can see a number of notable examples in AI are at play:
- Animal identification. Alberta’s livestock industry is world-renowned. Raising livestock is a significant operation that needs a lot of hands to closely monitor the health of each animal within the herd, and labour shortages make this difficult. Now, we’re seeing Ag tech startups develop AI solutions that allow ranchers to identify and track each animal using images or videos they collect of the herd, giving them the ability to monitor their individual health and progress in one place.
- Automation. Take a drive almost any direction out of Calgary and you’ve likely seen automated farm equipment at work. Food demand is high, and labour can’t always keep up with that. Robotics and automation are now integral parts of a farm owner’s toolkit, especially in large commercial operations. At the moment, much of this equipment works off of prescribed paths based on already processed data – such as a tractor following a particular route mapped out for crop harvesting. The next wave of this technology is autonomous robots, which will learn and adapt to the environment that it is operating in, able to adjust to any problem in real-time.
- Data analytics and modelling. With the right equipment, a single farm can produce a mountain of data at any given time: from information on soil health, to weather, to disease or pest mitigation. There are sensors in the ground, and drones and satellites in the sky, all gathering data to better inform farming decisions. But all of this data can only be as good as how quickly you can act on it. Farmers have started using AI to wade through this data in real-time to make management decisions that are well-informed and timely for a while now, also using it to create models and develop seasonal forecasts, helping with long-term business planning.
Alberta: The AI hub
When people think of AI, they might think of tech hotbeds such as Seattle or San Francisco, but did you know Alberta is right up there too? Thanks to organizations like DeepMind and AMII, we’ve got access to some of the brightest minds in AI right here in our province.
Closer to home in Calgary, we’ve got Ag tech successes including Decisive Farming (powered by TELUS) providing leading precision agriculture solutions, and Verge Ag developing autonomous farming, using AI to drive agribusiness success. Startups looking to develop and commercialize their AI solutions can reach out to AltaML, which has an office in the city.
At Olds College, the Smart Farm is funding and supporting applied research projects such as the Animal Identification Using AI and the Hyperlayer Data Concept, two major upcoming applications of AI in the sector.
For agriculture, AI is hardly a trend. It’s an inevitable way of life, as food demand continues to grow and climate change impacts where and how we grow our food. Experts worldwide are now using Machine Learning, a subset of AI, to find ways to make agriculture more sustainable in the midst of climate change. Not only should AI help our growers optimize yield, it should also help keep sustainability a priority. And the answers may be right here at home.