Artificial intelligence could improve agricultural productivity in myriad ways, from machines that zap weeds to crop-selection software. But its digital networks must be secure from attack or abuse, a panel of experts told senators on Tuesday. The panelists and members of the Senate Agriculture Committee agreed the technology must be within the financial grasp of farmers, possibly with the help of USDA cost-sharing funds.
More than a quarter of U.S. farmers use so-called precision agriculture technology such as GPS steering and yield monitoring, drones to scout fields and monitor livestock, and robotic milking. By analyzing huge volumes of data, AI could make farmers more efficient or automate tasks. Data confidentiality has been an issue since the introduction of precision agriculture. Agricultural AI, reliant on transferring data from farm field to the cloud, raises the issue of cybersecurity.
“In the agriculture sector, we really need to start protecting the data,” said Jose-Marie Griffiths, president of Dakota State University, where cybersecurity is an area of research. “As AI evolves, we’re seeing more and more technology being incorporated into the agricultural sector, and that increases what we call the threat landscape.”
AI has the potential to help farmers in areas ranging from fertilizer application rates and pest management to yield forecasts and, in arid areas, irrigation levels, said Mason Earles, an assistant professor at UC-Davis. “I think these are cost-saving measures that may be between 5 to 15 percent, on average, in any given farmer’s operation.”
The chief technology officer of Deere and Co., Jahmy Hindman, said to fully unlock the benefits of AI on the farm, rural access to high-speed internet service, “including in-field connectivity,” must be addressed. Hindman said senators should consider adding to the farm bill provisions that make the purchase of high-tech equipment eligible for cost-sharing funds from USDA conservation programs. “I think it’s a really important area for public policy to get involved in, to give farmers not just the tools but the financing to increase yield per acre and profit per acre,” said Sanjeev Krishnan of the investment firm S2G Ventures.
Farm-state sponsors of stand-alone bills for those purposes — “Last Acre” internet availability and cost-share funds for precision ag equipment — say they will increase crop yields while reducing input costs, lowering greenhouse gas emissions, and prevent soil erosion. California Rep. Jimmy Panetta said in March that access to USDA cost-share funds and payments for use of conservation practices “will promote precision agriculture by removing cost barriers.” Last Acre sponsor Sen. Deb Fischer of Nebraska said in May that farmers “need network connectivity that extends past their residences” and into their fields.
Senate Agriculture chairwoman Debbie Stabenow pointed to the issues of cybersecurity, internet availability, the cost of AI, and data confidentiality in opening the hearing. America “needs a moonshot in agriculture research,” said Stabenow, to maintain global leadership in agriculture. The senior Republican on the committee, John Boozman of Arkansas, said, “While AI holds great potential, we should ask tough questions about the potential risks.”
To watch a video of the hearing, click here.