Report calls for more action on AI in agriculture sector

A new report says New Zealand's agriculture sector needs to do more to engage with artificial intelligence technology.

The report by the AI Forum of New Zealand looked at how it was being used in the sector here and around the world, and the potential impact for the local agriculture industry.

AI Forum executive director Ben Reid said the research showed New Zealand urgently needs to increase its focus on operating in an AI-enabled future. 

"The rapid development of AI technologies presents major opportunities and challenges for our country. New Zealand needs to actively engage with AI now in order to secure our future prosperity," he said.

AI Forum executive director Ben Reid.
AI Forum executive director Ben Reid. Photo credit: Supplied

Agriculture and horticulture play a dominant role in the economy with food exports - dairy products, meat, fruit, wine, fish and seafood - making up around 40 percent of New Zealand's $80 billion annual exports, said the report.

However, it said the agriculture sector continued to face significant ongoing challenges including climate change, low productivity growth, labour shortages, increasing regulation and environmental sustainability.

It suggested that AI could be used in diverse ways thoughout the food supply chain, including yield optimisation, addressing labour shortages, meat alternative research, food quality assurance, isolating disease outbreaks in animals and plants, waste reduction, biosecurity and conversion efficiency. 

AI technologies could also be applied to reducing the environmental impact of agriculture in New Zealand and supporting more sustainable practices.

"On the food testing front, we are seeing the application of AI help develop new test methods and interpret complex test outputs faster, and machine vision used as an alternative test method in some applications.

"We are starting to see digital twins of farms and orchards emerge which simulate operating and business models to allow smarter, no-risk cause and effect modelling," said Reid.

While there was some agricultural AI activity in New Zealand, the report said it was disproportionately focused behind the farmgate.

"On-farm commercial activity to date appears to be focused on sensors, precision farm data with smarter alerts, robotics and decision support," said Reid.

He wanted to see the conversation and activity in AI change to include the whole value chain. 

"AI is the 21st century's number 8 wire - enabling New Zealand to achieve a premium position in the global food supply."