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Increasingly, technology decides what's for dinner

By James Q. Lynch, Gazette Des Moines Bureau

Former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack sees parallels between Silicon Valley and the heartland that lend themselves to a greater use of technology and artificial intelligence to reduce the environmental impact of food production, improve farmers’ bottom lines and feed a growing population.

“The people who were entrepreneurial in Silicon Valley were willing to take a risk of being wrong, or taking a risk of thinking they were going to develop something and being willing to change direction,” Vilsack said Wednesday at a discussion of the role that artificial intelligence and technology can play in the food system. “Farmers are the same way. They take enormous risk.”

The challenge, the former two-term Democratic Iowa governor said during a discussion of the role of artificial intelligence and technology in the food system, is how to manage that risk.

“In order to ensure the profitability of farming in the future,” he said. “there is going to be greater risk.”

Vilsack, now the president and chief executive of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, was part of a discussion at Google’s Chicago offices of “Refresh: Food + Tech, from Soil to Supper,” a report by a working group of farmers, small business owners, researchers, corporate partners, nonprofit leaders, educators, community organizers and innovators working across the food system to look at the intersection of food and technology. The report received financial support from Google.

One conclusion is that artificial intelligence — a term referring to automated systems that can make decisions or simulate humanlike reasoning — will be necessary to meet the demands of increasing food production by 25 to 70 percent in order to feed as many as 10 billion more people globally by 2050.

Put another way, farmers will need to grow more food in the next 30 years than they have in the last 8,000 — and with fewer acres and fewer people wanting to be farmers.

One of the risks farmers will face is climate change, Vilsack said.

“Call it what you want, blame whatever you want, the reality is the world is growing getting warmer,” he said. “That carries consequences of where you’re going to grow things, how you’re going to grow things, what you’re going to grow, what pest and diseases we don’t even know about are going to crop up.

“The pace of change is so incredibly rapid now — the pace of change in the climate, the pace of change in the global economy, the pace of change in technology, you can’t keep up with it,” he said. “That creates a lot on insecurity.”

There are a lot “unearthed opportunities, to use a little bit of a farming pun,” said Alia Lange of Google.

She foresees greater use of data for precision farming that allows fertilizers and pesticides to be tailored for each acre. Some farmers are using artificial intelligence apps that recognize plant disease as well as ripeness of fruits and vegetables. Livestock producers are using a sort of “FitBit” for cows to monitor their health and fertility.

Grocery store loyalty cards can be used to improve the availability of produce while reducing food waste, she added.

Though there are a lot of exciting things happening in technology that might improve the food system, it’s still the early days for artificial intelligence, said Akita Raturi of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“I think we have a long way to go before we start deploying Siri for farms,” she said. “We need fundamental technical infrastructure right now … very basic building blocks. What are the fundamental pieces we need to build first, and then people can imagine what other tools might be able to do.”

There was agreement that farmers are open to adopting artificial intelligence, but Vilsack warned there are issues about the collection and ownership of information and how it is used.

“Who owns this, who collects it, how is it being used, where’s it going?” he asked. “Our ability to advance new innovations far outpaces our ability to answer these ethical, moral dilemmas that ultimately arise as a result of technology.”