Artificial Intelligence and Agriculture: from farm to fork

The global population has doubled since 1960. However, according to the World Economic Forum, with the support of agricultural innovations proportionally fewer people are going hungry today than half a century ago. While technology has provided endless solutions in the agrifood sector, the mounting pressures of climate change threatens to upend that. As we begin to witness the exponential growth of AI, the application of this innovative technology to our food systems could be our salvation.

Its ability to process vast amounts of data in short periods of time and provide insightful analysis means AI can help address pressing issues within agriculture and food production.  Its capacity to execute tasks that traditionally require human intelligence offers innovative solutions to tackle a wide array of challenges, including those encountered within our food systems today. Some common and emerging applications of AI in food production include picking, placing, cutting, and slicing food products like fruit, vegetables, fish, and meat. On a consumer level, AI can learn about flavour preferences and current dietary trends. Manufacturers can then leverage these insights to create products that answer the latest consumer preferences. To harness AI’s transformative power, governments must first provide a clear regulatory framework.

The world’s first major AI regulation, the EU AI Act, is expected to come into full force in 2026, guaranteeing that AI systems used across sectors in the European Union are safe, traceable, and sustainable. In December 2023, the European Parliament reached a provisional agreement with the Council on the AI Act. It aims to hold companies more accountable for what they’re doing with AI, including companies operating in the food industry where AI plays an important role in the transition to sustainable food systems. The rules provide for a risk-based approach, meaning a company’s transparency obligations will depend on the level of potential risk an AI system presents. Members of the European Parliament have also made it clear that all sectors will be considered in this technological revolution. In particular, SMEs are given careful consideration to ensure they are not excluded from the AI revolution due to costs or pressures by industry giants controlling the entire value chain.

In addition to the ambitions set out in the AI Act, AI holds significant potential in advancing various policy objectives at the EU level, including the Sustainable Development Goals, the implementation of the European Green Deal, and the objectives of the long-awaited Farm to Fork Strategy. To attain the proposed targets for sustainable food production outlined in the Strategy, substantial transformation in the agricultural sector will be required. Leveraging innovative technologies offers unique opportunities to minimise harmful chemicals in the environment, make crops safe for consumption, and mitigate the risks of food waste.

Calls for action have catalysed multiple exchanges at the EU level and led to the recent initiative by the European Commission’s President Ursula von der Leyen to hold a Strategic Dialogue on the Future of EU Agriculture. Earlier this year, farmers, local food store owners, retailers, and consumer organisations gathered to discuss making agriculture more sustainable and opportunities to exploit the advantages offered by technological innovations. Moreover, a number of studies, including the “Artificial Intelligence for Europe” in 2018, and the “Artificial Intelligence in the Agri-Food Sector” in 2023, all recognise the agricultural sector as a key application area for AI to achieve environmental and sustainability targets. For instance, fertilizers can be applied based on real-time assessments of the nutrient demand using sensor technology. This prevents nutrient surpluses which are harmful to water bodies.  At the same time, AI offers new opportunities for data processing and knowledge sharing, which can support evidence-based political decision-making for agri-food policies.

While the use of AI in agriculture and food production holds promise for sustainability and efficiency, it simultaneously raises ethical concerns.  A common counterargument against the use of AI technology is the risk that it collects and misuses personal data. Hence, the implementation of AI systems in the agrifood sector and beyond must adhere to principles of transparency and accountability. On a consumer level, the intersection between AI and personalised nutrition is also twofold. While AI has the potential to offer customers personalised food choices tailored to their dietary needs, AI ‘guidance’ remains incomplete and can potentially mislead consumers. For governments, this means socio-ethical values must be taken into consideration when designing the policy and legal frameworks. While ensuring adequate governance of AI presents numerous social, ethical, and economic concerns, its development is rapidly progressing. This raises the question of how politicians will specifically regulate AI in the food industry. While the EU has produced the first legislative framework for AI, it remains to be seen how widely it will be used in various industries and how it will affect food safety, as well as whether legislators will move their focus to specific AI legislation aimed at the food industry.

In this context, it is important for organisations to not lose sight of the new opportunities and challenges ahead to influence policymakers in London and Brussels, and to have their voices heard by new players.

At Whitehouse Communications, our team of experts are driven to help clients navigate the complicated worlds of tech and communication policy. Your issues are our issues. We want to help your organisation deliver significant policy and regulatory changes. Whether you’re working in the UK or the EU – get in touch with us to discuss how we can help.