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Artificial intelligence and agriculture

Insights on the future of New Zealand’s primary sector

New Zealand’s wool, dairy, forestry and meat exports are highly sought-after internationally. From textile manufacturers in Europe to parents in Asia, New Zealand’s reputation as an ethical, high-quality and sustainable producer is recognised by investors, customers, users and farmers in key markets.

Our primary industries have always been at the forefront of technological innovation and our economy has been built on the back of agriculture, food and fibre, and the industries that service and support the primary sector. As a world leader in water and nutrient management, and animal health, New Zealanders continue to show others that sustainable production growth is possible.

Behind our primary sector, highly sophisticated technology works constantly towards improvement. Efficiency gains on dairy farms have been achieved through better feed and using genetic selection to raise milk yields. The science driving precision agriculture, feed efficiency and fertiliser management has led to innovations to coax more from the land, while satisfying customer demands for transparency, provenance and ethical sourcing.

Agriculture in the 21st century is bound up by the forces of natural resources, customer voice and regulation. And New Zealanders know the importance of using technology to ensure farming upholds its social licence.

Natural resources include the environment in which our primary industries operate, and the focus on climate, nature and biodiversity impacts from agricultural and horticultural production is increasing.

With the impact of climate change becoming more and more apparent across our farming communities, it is not just the footprint of our food production driving the agenda. Decisions on diversification and changing growing practices of what and where we farm are being made today as our farmers look towards a changing future.

Along with reductions in the amount of high-quality productive land available due to urban growth and the increasing competition for water, these are all creating pressures on existing primary production systems.

Customer voice is now a dominant driver of the future of food and fibre globally.

Customers, and consumers, are demanding functional benefits, clear provenance, ethical and trustworthy supply chains, and sustainable and nature-friendly production methods. For New Zealand, with an economy built on exporting our primary products, access to the world’s largest supply chains underpins our success. We must continue to be the supplier and partner of choice and be ready to respond to the increasing types of regulations and trade access requirements to maintain and grow relationships with valuable markets.

Regulation has, for a long time, set boundaries within which primary industries may operate.

With the changing demand of our customers, our farming sector must be able to innovate, and regulations that support this innovation growth, while protecting our most precious resources are key. This encompasses land zoning to water use, waste and emissions, food safety, employee health and safety, animal welfare, accounting and tax, and technology adoption such as genetic modification. Our regulations and incentives must be fit-for-purpose to enable our primary sector to grow sustainably, while protecting our environment and future proofing our economic success.

The tension between these three forces is challenging to navigate, but in each area, technology holds the promise of breakthroughs that will define how New Zealand's primary industries fare in the next decade.

Artificial Intelligence

One of the most promising and productivity-enhancing technologies in recent years is Artificial Intelligence (AI). Before we drill into the potential application of AI for the agriculture sector, we’ll cover off some core AI concepts:

Neural networks

Neural networks are like a team of super detectives, using layers of interconnected 'neurons' to spot patterns and make sense of complex data. Think of it as your farm's sleuthing squad, piecing together clues to identify everything from pests to ideal planting conditions.

Machine learning/Deep learning

Machine learning is all about machines getting smarter with experience, like a rookie farmhand learning from trial and error. Deep learning takes it to the next level, diving into data to uncover hidden insights and make more accurate predictions. It's like having a bunch of eager apprentices who keep getting better at their jobs.

Generative AI

Generative AI is the artist of the AI world, creating new things based on what it has learned. It's like having a virtual brainstorming partner. It can simulate crop growth, for example, based on various parameters like weather and soil conditions. Think of it as your farm's creative consultant, always ready to suggest exciting new possibilities.

If we put all of that together, AI is like the Swiss Army knife of farming tech. It's all about using smart machines to predict, adapt, and make your job easier.

Imagine AI as a farm advisor of the future - smart, adaptable, and always ready to lend a digital hand.

AI offers many ways in which primary industries can improve productivity, navigate regulation and natural resources constraints, and better meet increasing consumer expectations.

For example:

  • Using AI and simulation models to better predict required water or fertiliser application to maximise production and minimise waste/emissions/runoff.
  • More resilient AI-powered supply chains that can predict and respond instantly to disruptions, adapting to ensure continued supply of our food and fibre products to customers in distant markets.
  • Generative AI as a tool for improving productivity when navigating complex and overwhelming requirements around policies and compliance, to reduce time spent on administration and improve compliance outcomes.

And it’s already here – with a range of products and tools like OmniEye, ForeSight and FarmRoad available in New Zealand.

Increasingly, we're seeing another application of AI, using computer vision as a way of delivering productivity and compliance benefits that also help to ensure our primary supply chains have high integrity and trustworthiness.

One of these is AI for animals

AI4Animals (AI4A) uses artificial intelligence to monitor animal handling in slaughterhouses. It improves welfare by automatically detecting potential issues through AI, circumventing the need to manually sift through hours of footage.

In recent years, most major slaughterhouses in the Netherlands have implemented camera monitoring systems. This produces hundreds of hours of video footage every day. Consequently, most video footage remained unseen.

AI4Animals uses artificial intelligence models and a dashboard to monitor animal handling in slaughterhouses and works around the need to manually filter through hours of footage, saving time and labour resources that can then be used for more value-add activities.

The technology can improve quality assurance and compliance processes to enforce animal welfare standards and regulations in different production settings. It also picks up animal stress – so those animals with high glycogen content can be removed from processing for a period of time, which ensure there is less poor-quality meat being processed.

Computer vision data, as used in AI4A, could enable local processors to monitor and enforce animal welfare standards, in addition to the economic benefit of minimising dark meat.

Where to next?

  • AI-powered analytics can help the primary sector respond to climate change by providing insights on weather patterns, soil health and other factors affecting agricultural production, which improves climate resilience.
  • AI can help with the goal of doubling export value by optimising resource use and improving traceability, predicting disease outbreaks and determining the right time to plant or harvest crops, animal disease diagnosis and resilience, and increasing precision agriculture.
  • AI could – one day –  help with workforce issues by being able to move from sensing, to monitoring, caring for and picking crops.

The future for our food and fibre

New Zealand’s ability to produce what the world wants isn’t down to luck. Persistence and the will to conquer distance, tame land and strive for excellence has driven many innovations. AI is here, it will only improve, and it will not be distributed evenly. New Zealand’s primary sector needs to ensure it is at the forefront of development and usage to alleviate challenges in ways that balance economic prosperity with environmental sustainability.

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