Overcoming the Digital Gap and Food Insecurity: a Complementary Target

Overcoming the digital gap to face food insecurity with the use of artificial intelligence practices in agriculture is part of a growing debate that seeks to simultaneously safeguard natural resources and address the difficulties generated by climate change and the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic
Digital technologies are changing agriculture and food systems. It is important to bridge the digital gap in this sector so that family farmers in developing countries are not left behind as food security depends on them. Credit: FAO.
  • Opinion by Mario Lubetkin (rome)
  • Inter Press Service
  • Mario Lubetkin is Assistant Director General at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)

In recent times, multinational high-tech companies, such as IBM and Microsoft from the U.S., international institutions, such as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), and ethical and spiritual references, such as the Pontifical Academy for Life, have devoted their efforts and work towards this objective.

Artificial intelligence technologies can play an important role in transforming food systems by performing tasks that are otherwise conducted by people such as planting and harvesting. This can help to increase productivity, improve working conditions and use natural resources more efficiently with better knowledge and planning management.

These technologies are beginning to be applied in areas of agricultural robotics, soil and crop monitoring, and predictive analytics, to name a few.

In the context of climate change, population growth and the depletion of natural resources, this technological advance can also contribute to the preservation of soils and water, a fact that gains greater relevance in the attempt to achieve food security in a sustainable way.

"I am convinced that we will continue to transform our food systems to feed the world thanks to digital agriculture," said FAO Director-General QU Dongyu, while stressing that digital technologies "must be accessible to all."

The ethical value of technological development has received strong attention from Pope Francis. Moreover, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, argued that "we must feed all people, but not necessarily all should eat the same."

He added that the protection of biological diversity (human, vegetal and animal), “should occupy the center of our attention and should guide the entire process, from the ethical phase of design to the ways in which they are proposed and disseminated in different social and cultural contexts.”

According to the president of Microsoft, Brad Smith, “technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning tools will be especially useful as we work to address the issues of hunger and food insecurity, especially in a world that must face climate change, as they can foresee problems and respond with critical resources that help prevent future famines and save lives.”

In this regard, according to figures published by FAO, there are currently 690 million people who are going hungry, and by the end of 2020, as a result of the effects of COVID-19, the figure could increase by 130 million.

IBM´s vice president, John Kelly, recalled that "only if we put people, their interests and their values at the center of our thinking about the future of technology can we emerge stronger in the face of global challenges such as the pandemic and food security."

In February, the Pontifical Academy for Life, in collaboration with FAO, Microsoft, IBM and the Italian government, among others, launched a call to build the ethics of artificial intelligence based on principles such as transparency and inclusion.

The purpose of this, is that these systems can be easily explained. They can take into account human beings, while providing the best possible conditions to express themselves and develop impartially, thus avoiding that only a few benefit from them.

To achieve this, the current digital gap must be overcome. At present, 6 billion people do not have a broadband connection, 4 billion cannot access the internet, 2 billion do not have mobile phones and 400 million do not have a digital signal at all.

The use of artificial intelligence tools is part of the action promoted by an important group of countries for the establishment of an International Platform for Digital Food and Agriculture, a forum of multiple parties interested in identifying and defining the possible benefits and risks of digitization of the food and agriculture sector.

In January 2020, 71 Ministers of Agriculture from different countries formally promoted this initiative, which encourages the combination of forums that are dedicated to agriculture with those that focus their attention on the digital economy. In turn, the initiative proposes to support governments in the development of voluntary practices and guidelines for the application of digital technologies in agriculture.

In a similar direction, FAO and Google recently launched a new big data tool for rural producers and other figures in the agriculture sector. It enables the transmission of images from a satellite in quasi-real time, with analytical functionality and on a planetary basis, in order to allow the detection, quantification and monitoring of changes and trends in the land surface, thus simplifying access to relevant information for small producers.

© Inter Press Service (2020) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service