OMAHA (DTN) -- An executive for Deere & Co. and one from a venture capital firm each pitched using the farm bill to help more farmers purchase and subscribe to precision agricultural tools during a hearing on artificial intelligence (AI) in agriculture.
The U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee held a hearing Tuesday looking at the opportunities and risks for farmers and food security from the rapid acceleration of artificial intelligence (AI) in agriculture.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., chairwoman of the committee, opened the hearing by saying, "American agriculture has always been at the forefront of innovation, and artificial intelligence has the potential to revolutionize the way we grow, harvest and distribute our crops." She added, "In this rapidly evolving landscape, it is imperative that we strike a balance between harnessing the benefits AI offers while addressing the concerns it raises, such as data privacy, workforce implications and equitable access to technological advancements."
After a few more sentences, Stabenow said her entire statement up to that point was generated by AI. "This just shows us how real this technology and its implications can be," she said.
While praising the potential, Stabenow also cautioned against "placing vast amounts of data in the hands of a few private companies," saying it could accelerate consolidation in agriculture, harm minority farmers or small farmers and that high costs could put precision technology "out of reach for everyone except the largest operations."
Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., the committee's ranking member, highlighted the "tremendous opportunities" from AI technology ranging from monitoring livestock for diseases to precision agriculture, such as targeted fertilizer and pesticide application, as well as inspecting systems to identify sources of leaks in irrigation equipment.
"AI has the potential to dramatically increase efficiency and minimize waste, resulting in improved yields and profitability," he said.
Still, Boozman also pointed out potential risks. He said new regulations may be needed to protect consumers, "especially when it comes to the use of applications that handle sensitive data."
Other senators also raised separate concerns about how AI will affect farm labor and the overall workforce in agriculture. Another challenge is ensuring there is broadband access in rural America to allow these new technologies to work.
AI ACCELERATION IN AG
Mason Earles, an assistant professor at the AI Institute for Next Generation Food Systems, University of California-Davis, said advances in AI are accelerating quickly. Talking about software development, he said it is a lot faster to go from concept to product now than just five years ago. For example, today it might only take a single day to develop a model that highlights the differences between beneficial versus destructive moths, Earle said. Five years ago, a group of software developers would have taken significantly longer to develop such a tool.
"What that ends up meaning is we get more products to market faster for agricultural AI startups and industry," Earles said, though he added that AI still requires data and human supervision.
Agricultural experts are still needed to connect with the software developers, for instance.
Even in the last week or two weeks, we've seen a huge change in how humans and AI communicate," Earles said.
Earles said he opened an app Tuesday night and offered a scenario of an Iowa farmer who found a small worm infesting a soybean field. AI immediately came back with five options, but the app also asked if an image was available. "This is just like talking to a person, right?" he said. "So, I showed an image of what I know to be this type of worm and it correctly identified this type of worm."
Earles then suggested AI had the ability to become "AI advisors" to farmers, but the models still need to be trained to give proper recommendations.
DEERE 'SEE AND SPRAY'
Jahmy Hindman, senior vice president and chief technology officer for Deere & Co., said Deere currently connects more than 650,000 machines globally using cellular networks. That allows data collected during planting and harvesting to be sent to cloud storage for analysis.
Hindman and others indicated some of the challenges right now remain connectivity problems in rural America including in the field.
Hindman also talked about Deere's "see and spray technology" that uses cameras to scan for weeds using artificial intelligence and spray only where needed. The technology has been used in roughly 275,000 acres of corn, soybeans and cotton to reduce 2 million gallons of herbicide use.
"But reducing herbicide use is just the start of AI's potential in agriculture," Hindman said, pointing to other technologies such as autonomous tillage.
PITCHING FOR FARM BILL FUNDING
Hindman then called on Congress to include proposals in the farm bill such as the Precision Ag Loan Act and the Producing Responsible Energy and Conservation Incentives and Solutions for the Environment (PRECISE) Act. Both bills would open up USDA's loan programs and conservation cost-share programs to allow more farmers to buy precision farming equipment.
"U.S. farmers would benefit greatly from incentives to help them acquire the precision technology needed to do their jobs more efficiently and sustainability," Hindman said.
Multiple senators referenced the two different bills and need to consider adding them to the farm bill.
Sanjeev Krishnan, chief investment officer for S2G Ventures in Chicago, said federal funding is needed to help scale these technologies in precision agriculture. Such funding would help "de-risk" the scaling of new technologies, "but also create longer-term decision-making focused on soil health and sustainability," Krishnan said. "So, I think it's a really important area for public policy to get involved in to give farmers not just the tools, but the financing to increase yield per acre and profit per acre."
Looking at outside investment in agriculture, Krishnan said venture capital in agricultural technology has drawn more interest but still lags behind other industries. That investment has gone from less than $1 billion a decade ago to peaking at about $12 billion a year, but right now is closer to $6 billion year-to-date. Agriculture remains a small slice of the venture capital space. Only about 3% of venture capital is invested in "ag tech," he said.
Todd Janzen, an attorney in Indiana, also is an administrator for the Ag Data Transparent Organization -- a group that certifies companies that are transparent about how they collect and use farmers' data. Janzen pointed to various tools farmers already use and the data collected from farmers in the process. Janzen noted farmers are sensitive about sharing their data, "and they have a good reason to be so."
Farmers lack trust in the cloud-based platforms and have privacy concerns about their proprietary data. A lot of agreements also are "overly complex," making it difficult for farmers to understand the kind of data they must share. Farmers should know when they sign up for AI platforms if their information is going to be used to train the AI platform and what is in it for farmers.
"Farming is their livelihood so I think they have a reason to be skeptical of just turning over all of this information about their livelihoods over to third parties," Janzen said.
Jose-Maria Griffiths, president of Dakota State University in Madison, S.D., emphasized some of the risks of artificial intelligence still come down to a set of algorithms that are subject to hacking and cybersecurity attacks. She talked about Ukrainian farmers' tractors basically becoming frozen in place right before Russia launched its attack on Ukraine nearly three years ago as one example. The tractors' systems had been attacked.
As AI evolves, that data spreads across the sector, Griffiths said. That also increases the "threat landscape" as networks develop more points where the system can be attacked, she said. More work is needed to protect agricultural data through tools such as encryption, she said. That goes beyond machinery to the seeds, their treatments and inputs for seeds, she said.
"You can't separate any new technology these days from cybersecurity," Griffiths said. "The two have to go together."
The full hearing can be watched at https://www.agriculture.senate.gov/…
Also see "Artificial Intelligence Tools Like ChatGPT Could Change Decision Making on the Farm," https://www.dtnpf.com/…
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com.
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