Technology and innovation will help Alberta provide a hungry world with safe, secure, and nutritious food.
As a critically important industry where a multitude of complex variables can dramatically impact its outcomes, agriculture is the ideal sector to embrace artificial intelligence (AI) and all aspects of digital transformation.
The increased focus on food supply and food security for an ever-growing global population has necessitated even more advances in Canadians’ farming practices. Digitization has become a driving force in the evolution of the industry in Canada.
The agribusiness sector — from farmers and ranchers to crop scientists and food processors — is adopting advanced technologies to grow more or new crops, and to improve its products and processes. Canada is the fifth leading exporter of agricultural products worldwide and is one of the few countries with the capacity to expand its exports to a hungry world.
Traditional perceptions of agriculture as simple farming or ranching fail to consider the amount of innovation occurring in agricultural technology (ag-tech), agricultural sciences, ag-finance, and other areas.
AI is transforming agriculture
Cutting-edge technologies including AI and machine learning are transforming the sector. Globally, the application of AI in agribusiness is forecast to grow by more than 25 percent per year through 2025.
A 2019 study from Calgary Economic Development revealed that the agribusiness sector is the fastest-growing adopter of digital transformative technologies in Alberta, with forecast spending increasing by 23 percent from 2019 to 2022. The industry is just scratching the surface on what AI could achieve.
Ag-tech includes the development, design, testing, and production of specialized software and hardware to support core agriculture activities. It’s in a position to be a $730 billion U.S. industry worldwide by 2023. The technology can be applied in every subsector of agriculture.
The main application of AI to date is in precision agriculture: using technologies to optimize yield and profitability while maximizing the efficiency of resources such as fertilizer and reducing the use of pesticides.
The agribusiness sector — from farmers and ranchers to crop scientists and food processors — is adopting advanced technologies to grow more or new crops, and to improve its products and processes.
Precision agriculture is a game-changer
In precision agriculture alone, there are several notable examples of big strides in AI:
- Animal identification: Ag-tech companies are developing facial recognition AI for ranchers to track each animal using images or videos of the herd to monitor livestock to assess growth and health.
- Automation: Robotics are now integral parts of a farm owner’s toolkit. The next wave will be autonomous robots that learn and adapt to the operating environment to adjust machinery in real time.
- Data analysis and modelling: With sensors in the ground and drones and satellites overhead, farms can gather data on details from soil health to weather, disease, and pest mitigation. AI reviews data in real time to support well-informed and timely decisions.
When people think of AI they might imagine tech hotbeds such as Seattle or San Francisco, but Alberta’s also among the global leaders. Thanks to organizations like DeepMind and the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (AMII), some of the brightest minds in AI are in Western Canada.
On top of the advances in smart agriculture and precision farming on the ground, trailblazers across Alberta are working to ensure new, innovative solutions continue to be developed. With primary production, protein development, ag-tech, food safety, and traceability in effect, the province is a hotspot for Canadian and global food and technology suppliers.
Post-secondaries play a key role
Post-secondary institutions including the University of Calgary and the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology are also playing a major role in the advances. Just north of Calgary, Olds College is supporting several applied research projects such as animal identification using AI. Its Smart Farm has created a hands-on learning environment where students are applying technology and innovative ideas to create real-world impact from the field to the dinner table.
For the agribusiness sector, digitization and AI are hardly a trend. They’re the tools the industry uses as food demand continues to grow and climate change impacts where and how Canadians grow food.
The area stretching from Olds to Calgary to Lethbridge in Southern Alberta is one of Canada’s leading agricultural corridors. It has added significantly to agriculture and agri-food products from Alberta, more than doubling in the last 10 years the products that now go to more than 150 countries worldwide.
Agribusiness is a key industry in the economic strategy Calgary in the New Economy which sets out a vision for the city’s future. In September, Calgary Economic Development and Western Economic Diversification Canada released the Agribusiness Market Study, which revealed strong prospects for growth in regional and global markets for the sector.
The study supported increased cooperation among industry players to advance technology. It also found that continued digitization of the sector is the pathway to realizing a prosperous and sustainable agriculture industry in the future.