Opportunities and Challenges

Emerging technologies are changing how we produce, distribute, and consume what we eat by bringing food to people instead of bringing people to food. Our food system is entering a new frontier. Farmers can now diagnose plant diseases in a matter of seconds, not weeks. Grocers and nonprofits are using interoperable point of sale technologies to ensure that even the nation’s most food-insecure individuals and families can afford fresh, nutritious food. Millions of Americans are monitoring and improving their health by tapping into fitness and meal tracking apps, while public health officials and software engineers are teaming up to more easily streamline recalls and contain the spread of food poisoning.

Predictive technologies are already being harnessed across the food supply chain to bring food to people, thereby changing the longstanding norm of bringing people to food. Emerging technologies support not only the agricultural sector but the entire food system, and emerging technologies make it possible to come up with faster and cheaper solutions for dealing with crises in food production, distribution, and consumption. These tools can help to mitigate the most extreme difficulties by predicting potential problems before they develop, spotting issues early on, and providing tools to solve them efficiently. Perhaps most importantly, as many of the technologies introduced throughout this report have shown, AI can make it easier for people working all along the food chain to collaborate and innovate together.

Speaking about the opportunities that AI introduces, Georgia Institute of Technology Computer Science Professor Jake Abernethy says that “one obvious opportunity is bringing costs down at all points across the food supply chain.” These new tools are promising, yet there is still work to be done in the coming years to ensure that technology is leveraged to foster sustainable farming, promote the equitable distribution of food, and address a broader range of public health concerns. In order for these new advances to benefit society as a whole, they must be affordable, user-friendly, reliable, and accessible. They must address some of the most pressing technological issues being studied elsewhere, including the “digital divide” and rural broadband access,54 the relationship between AI and the labor market,55 and ownership over farm data.56

As new technologies emerge, many farmers, in particular, worry that untested tools will diminish the quality of the foods they produce along with their culture. Veteran Farmer Don Bustos, who runs Santa Cruz Farms & Greenhouses in Northern New Mexico, would like to see technology support the life-blood of the community rather than disrupt it with trendy, short-sighted innovations. He worries about “a militarized systems approach towards agriculture, where everything is monitored.” In the process of optimization, Bustos warns that precision technologies risk sucking the land dry. “That system works,” Bustos concedes, “but it’s a system that’s dependent on a huge amount of fossil fuel and outside resources.”

As innovations in food technologies continue to accelerate, it’s particularly important for communities to have a say in their implementation. Bustos sees the value of technology as a means to reduce inefficiencies and grow more with less. In fact, he’s pioneered ways of using solar energy to keep plants warm during the cool desert nights — running tubes of hot water underneath the soil to prevent their roots from freezing off. For him, AI’s greatest potential will be realized when it fully integrates community, culture, and ancestral knowledge. “I know that technology has a great role to play, but the decisions about how we grow food shouldn’t be dictated by it,” says Bustos.

  1. Roberto Gallardo, Alison Grant, Brian Whiteacre, “Broadband’s impact: A brief literature review,” Purdue University, January 2018.
  2. Geoffrey Mohan, “As California’s labor shortage grows, farmers race to replace workers with robots,” Los Angeles Times, July 21, 2017.
  3. Emma Cosgrove, “Congress wades into farm data ownership debate,” AgFunderNews.com, July 17, 2017.