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Tech meets tradition in 2024: AI-enhanced farming and the rise of heritage crops

Nourish Food Marketing recently released their Trend Report 2024. In the foreword, president and founder Jo-Ann McArthur says: “Turning to plants and the people who grow them, farmers will continue to adopt new technologies, including AI, into their daily processes. However, we will see them lean more heavily into heritage crops and other alternatives to cope with climate change and combat monoculture. Perhaps this is an ideal situation to coincide with a shift to letting plants finally shine in plant-based foods instead of slavishly mimicking meat products—products vegans and vegetarians don’t want, anyway.”

Several of the expected trends highlighted in the Trend Report relate to farming and agriculture as such.

Insight driven farming

According to the report, AI will enable insight-driven farming at the farm level, resulting in maximum yields with fewer inputs and reduced environmental impact.

It will integrate data from various sources (satellites, weather stations, IoT devices) and provide a unified platform for decision-making. Farmers will be able to monitor their entire operation in real time and make data-driven decisions at a previously unimagined level. It would be like adding a full-time analytics team, without the associated costs.

Farmers facing labour shortages can look to AI for at least temporary relief in analytics, planning, and supply management capacities. The need for more skilled workers with the necessary technical expertise should come from programs, like “Agriculture in the Classroom,” showing students the variety of jobs available beyond the stereotypical farmer.

An engineering degree may be just as relevant as a traditional degree from an agricultural college, and you can expect this new wave of young agriculture specialists to have a keen understanding of AI, according to the Trend Report.

Water will no longer be seen as a free good

It’s all over the news and, maybe more importantly, social media – water shortages, record droughts, and fires. And this is forcing consumers to focus more on water as a finite resource and go beyond basic measures to keep their water bills down. But the stewardship of water could be the next resource battleground and on a scale far larger than the occasional local news item about large corporations sourcing water from municipal aquifers.

Where’s all the water going? Primarily into food production. Agriculture, including crop irrigation and raising livestock, is the world’s most water-intensive industry, accounting for 70 per cent of all freshwater withdrawals annually.

“Clearly, food security will be linked to water security, and water-use efficiency will have to be maximized. If we stay the course, water supplies are predicted to fall 40 per cent short of meeting global needs by 2030,” according to the Nourish report.

Water is the number one nutrient for crops; there’s no agriculture without it. As farmers and suppliers seek to maintain their output with dwindling or inconsistent water availability, expect more drought-resistant seed varieties to come to market.

Governments at all levels will have to develop long-term sustainable water strategies. And everywhere water is used, we’ll see more closed-loop systems, where water is reclaimed and reused.

‘Farming goes back to the future’

If you don’t know agriculture (and many consumers don’t), you might be surprised to learn that farming employs a wealth of cutting-edge technology. Knowing that, it should come as no surprise that AI is poised to make a significant impact on one of humanity’s most ancient industries. As outlined in the AI trend, farmers will have a level of oversight and a wealth of data to work with that their fathers couldn’t have imagined. Which makes it ironic to say that, at the same time, some farming practices will reach back to far earlier times.

Farmers are searching for new methods to optimize crop yields in changing climates. Regenerative farming practices coupled with AI-powered technological advances are part of the solution. Are heritage crops another piece of the puzzle?

It isn’t enough for a farmer to simply decide to grow heirloom crops. To make this work requires a joint effort between players right across the food system. The seeds have to come from somewhere, there has to be someone to buy and process the harvest into products, and someone willing to sell those products. And there must be chefs eager to tap into traditional local inputs to create heritage dishes. Consumers love a great story—so who will step up and give it to them?

Source: Nourish Food Marketing. Read the full Trend Report 2024 here

Editor & Publisher: Lukie Pieterse

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