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Artificial intelligence helping to improve farming

The impact of the University of Florida’s $70 million artificial intelligence (AI) initiative is likely to show up on your plate every day. It can help make what you eat tastier, healthier and more locally sourced.

AI gives UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) researchers a better chance at creating a great Florida-grown blackberry or olive — and creating an industry around it that produces jobs, sales and tax revenue to pay for public services. It took a couple of decades to do this with blueberries, but technology could compress this hunt for the next great Florida crop.

Innovation has kept us globally competitive for decades. AI that speeds development of a machine-harvested tomato or blueberry, for example, can cut costs enough to keep many Florida farms in business.

UF’s AI initiative establishes food and agriculture as one of its chief fields of focus. I believe it will be the area in which a university investment will produce, as we say in agriculture, a greater yield.

UF/IFAS has built-in advantages that position us to make great leaps forward with the aid of the university AI initiative.

First, we’re not starting from scratch. A UF/IFAS scientist is exploring the use of AI to measure how much a cow eats by analyzing changes in the topography of the grain in the trough. Other UF/IFAS researchers are using it to figure out which among thousands of possible blueberry plants produce berries with just the right crunch. 

Working with faculty from the UF Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering, one of our agronomists will lead development of affordable mini sensors designed to be planted alongside crops and report whether individual plants are getting enough water and nutrients.

AI can analyze the vast amount of data collected by the sensors to determine if each plant is getting too much or too little water and nutrients — something that would be extraordinarily challenging without this technology. Tapping into the UF initiative will accelerate work like this that’s already going on at UF/IFAS.

Second, we have the scientific teams to use AI to attack complex problems. We can pair engineers with entomologists, agronomists, horticulturalists, plant pathologists, soil scientists and more to take a 360-degree look at removing obstacles to growing anything in Florida with reduced impact on the environment. 

We breed the solution to so many agricultural problems. That’s our third advantage — that we have what I would argue is the nation’s finest university plant breeding team.

Traditional breeding programs are a numbers game to find just the right combination of attributes. AI will significantly accelerate finding the right combinations as we seek the peanut, the grass, the pomegranate, the flower and the cow that are the best genetic bets for a successful harvest or herd. That ultimately translates to better food for you.  

Fourth, our innovations spread more rapidly because we have an expert corps dedicated to delivering science to farmers – the Extension service. Agents educate farmers through field days, seminars and farm visits. They help farmers troubleshoot in their fields and encourage them to try the latest technologies.

A UF investment in AI for agriculture makes a better world. An estimated 700 million people worldwide are chronically hungry and we expect to have 2 billion more mouths to feed by 2050.

AI fuels an effort to alleviate immense human suffering.

We have high hopes for how AI can help us help you. Nutrition scientists are interested in using AI to personalize nutrition. What foods can help prevent disease you are most likely to develop based on your unique genetic makeup? AI can help answer this question.

It could help citrus scientists fend off a disease that has threatened the very existence of Florida OJ. It might even point brewers to the right hops for the next great homegrown Florida beer. 

Raise a glass of the beverage of your choice to agricultural science. Then taste the results of an investment in innovation.

Scott Angle is the University of Florida’s vice president for agriculture and natural resources and leader of the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS).


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