Fall ArmywormMachine learning, a variation of artificial intelligence that includes the development of algorithms that independently learn new information, has innumerable applications. An example of this can be found in Africa, where the fall armyworm pest in Uganda has ravaged crop yields. Amid the destruction, a new machine learning-based app created by a Ugandan developer has the potential to stop the spread of the crop-destroying pest.

Agriculture in Uganda and the Fall Armyworm

Approximately 22% of Uganda’s GDP comes from agriculture, with most Ugandans working in the agricultural sector, often engaging in subsistence farming. With the nation’s economic performance relying on successful agricultural harvests and the population’s everyday food source coming from their own crop yields, any invasion of pests in Uganda can have serious consequences.

In 2016, Uganda experienced its first invasion of the fall armyworm pest, the larva of the armyworm moth. A native of the tropical regions of the western hemisphere, the fall armyworm pest eats through crops for nourishment before its transformation into a moth. By mid-2017, the fall armyworm had been detected throughout Uganda and was estimated to have caused $192 million USD in maize crop losses alone. In some regions, up to 75% of crop yields were lost.

Despite the severe threat posed by the fall armyworm pest in Uganda, local developers have created a machine learning-based tool to assist Ugandan farmers with detecting the presence of the fall armyworm in their crops and preventing its spread.

Machine Learning to Protect Crops

In the aftermath of the arrival of the fall armyworm pest, Nazirini Siraji, a Ugandan woman from the city of Mbale, began work on a modern solution to the age-old problem of pest invasions. After attending one of Google’s Codelabs events, Siraji used Google’s TensorFlow platform to develop her Farmers Companion App. TensorFlow is an open-source machine learning tool that enables developers like Siraji to create digital solutions powered by artificial intelligence.

The Farmers Companion App enables farmers to use mobile technology to identify this specific pest on their crops and their lifecycle stage. Using this information, the app notifies the user about the threat level faced by their crops and the extent to which the fall armyworm has the potential to spread. The app also recommends specific pesticide treatments that can be used based on the situation of the farmer’s crops.

According to Google, the app has already been deployed in the agricultural lands surrounding Mbale, where Siraji partners with local farmers in utilizing her Farmers Companion App.

Big Tech Meets Local Developer

The global expansion of the internet has been accompanied by a rise in local innovation aimed at solving local issues. In Africa, pest invasions have been responsible for countless crop shortages and famines, which exacerbates problems of instability and poverty. While invasions from pests like the fall armyworm will inevitably occur in the future, they will not happen again without opposition from new technology.

John Andrikos
Photo: Flickr

AI Increases Food SecurityArtificial Intelligence seems like a far-off concept reserved for science fiction. In truth, AI is present in modern life and the advancements in this technology are being used to combat global poverty. Most prominently, computer scientists and engineers are improving the ways that AI increases food security globally. The need for utilizing technology in food security is essential to protect more than 800 million people suffering from hunger worldwide.

Predicting Threats to Food Security

A vital step to protect food security is looking ahead and responding proactively to potential problems. The Nutrition Early Warning System (NEWS) works by gathering massive amounts of data from vast sources to forecast developing situations affecting food supply. NEWS is a perfect example of how AI increases food security with constant improvements in its system to enhance response times to price changes, poor weather conditions for food development and other global crop issues.

The effectiveness of machine learning far surpasses human data collection and these types of technology have already seen success. Through the algorithms created by AI technology, a forecasted drought prevented many Colombian farmers from planting crops that would not have been fruitful. This prediction saved the farmers millions of dollars by avoiding crop loss during the dry spell. Preserving large amounts of money to spend during opportune times is another way AI increases food security and stabilizes supply.

AI Optimizes Agricultural Procedures and Production

People living in rural areas that work in farming communities are usually the most susceptible to extreme poverty. AI can improve working conditions and modernize agriculture to protect vulnerable populations and provide them with upward economic mobility through technology education and increased crop production.

AI robotics is revolutionizing agriculture and crop harvesting robots as well as AI-enhanced drones are increasing production and keeping workers safe. Robotic weed control allows for the proper and safe distribution of herbicides that can be harmful to humans. This also prevents herbicide resistance. In Argentina, drones inspect wheat crops for harmful infections and pests. AI increases food security by diagnosing soil conditions as well. This technology allows workers to implement the necessary strategies for correcting nutrient deficiencies.

The most important aspect of these technologies is that they provide benefits but will not reduce the need for actual workers. Though education in these fields can be expensive, the skills learned will add value and mobilize people out of extreme poverty.

The FAO AI Systems Used for Food Security

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has implemented two programs in which AI increases food security and improves agriculture sustainability; the FAO’s WaPOR portal and the Agriculture Stress Index System (ASIS). Both systems monitor water usage in agriculture in different ways.

  • The FAO’s WaPOR portal monitors water in the Near East and African regions. It does this through open-source technology that gathers massive amounts of data. Simultaneously, the AI analyzes the data to determine the best water use for different crops and regions and uploads the information in real-time.
  • ASIS works similarly to NEWS. It is a satellite system that works as an early detection system for droughts or other water shortages. ASIS breaks down the information from a global standpoint to each country and region. Doing this allows people to be proactive in their preparation for impending droughts by improving water usage and shoring up logistics of moving aid to an area troubled by food shortages, thereby preventing hunger.

The Future of Food Security

As time progresses, AI will improve and become more common, eventually becoming cheaper and more accessible worldwide. With the rapid advancement in this technology and what is already in place to sustain food security using AI, a hunger-free world is a closer reality.

– Zachary Kunze
Photo: Flickr

Crop Pests and DiseasesThe global climate is changing and food demands are increasing. As a result, the threat of crop pests and diseases could mean widespread hunger, especially for at-risk populations. The nature of many agricultural pests and pathogens compound this problem. They are hard to detect, widespread, and highly specified.

Containing these diseases can only happen once they’ve become detectable. Consequently, this often means that large amounts of crops have been damaged past the point of recovery and containment. One disease alone can cause financial losses in the hundreds of millions. A single outbreak of Karnal bunt fungus in north Texas caused a $250 million loss in revenue in 2001.

More Food, More Pests?

The world’s food supply faces increased biological threats due to climate change, increased travel between countries, and increases in large-scale food production. The need for food increases each year as well, with a predicted nine billion people in need by 2050. Mass agriculture of staple crops, such as wheat, rice, palm, cassava and various fruit and vegetables, face dangers unique to each crop:

  • Cassava Mosaic Virus: This virus produces ‘s’ shaped stalks, stunted plant growth, and low yields.

  • Coconut Rhinoceros beetle: The ‘Coconut’ Red Rhinoceros Beetle (X. glabratus) spreads fungus called Raffaelea Lauricola that kills redbay and avocado trees, effectively starving their pollinators.

  • Wheat Rust: This fungus is caused by Puccinia triticina (Brown Leaf Rust), and it reduces wheat kernel yield and size. It is a prolific spreader that is present in major wheat-growing sites worldwide.

  • Citrus Greening: This virus is rampant in the southeastern U.S. as well as citrus and other orchards worldwide. As of 2019, the disease has reduced Florida citrus production by 75%.

Additionally, the loss of staple foods to crop pests and diseases can contribute to livestock malnutrition. Roughly 36% of the world’s crops are grown for feeding livestock. In some developing countries, these animals are essential to meeting a minimum caloric intake. Thus, famine in developing countries can commonly be exacerbated by a secondary loss in crop-dependent food supplies, such as cattle or goats.

However, a potential solution to the malnutrition of both humans and livestock lies in an unforeseen place.

Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks

dog’s sense of smell is consistently strong, with some odors detectable in parts per trillion. The scent abilities of our four-legged canine friends have an ancient history of benefits. This includes successful applications in hunting, national security, border patrol, medicine and agriculture. This skill also makes them well suited for training in detecting crop pests and diseases.

Dogs have a particular knack for new scents, described as a form of neophilia. “This technology is thousands of years old – the dog’s nose; we’ve just trained dogs to hunt new prey: the bacteria that causes a very damaging crop disease,” says U.S. Department of Agriculture researcher Timothy Gottwald.

Agricultural scientists approve of this new application (detection of crop pests and diseases) of a canine’s olfactory system. Equally important to note is the cost-saving potential of training dogs over traditional identification and lab processing, as money is a pivotal issue in developing countries when eradicating crop diseases.

Conclusion

Food security, the increase in crop pests and diseases and the costs of testing for agricultural diseases is a dynamic problem combination in need of unique solutions. To date, dogs have been successful in identifying crop diseases such as clubroot, wheat rust and citrus greening. They have also shown promise in early and accurate detection. These early successes imply that training our canine companions can be a worthwhile and life-saving venture for millions of food-insecure peoples in the future.

Katrina Hall
Photo: Flickr

Genetically Modified PestsHumanity’s ability to feed itself by farming crops is a skill that has existed for millennia. Agriculture has long served humans’ need for nourishment and has allowed the growth and expansion of populations across the world. However, the same agricultural problems that plagued early farmers’ crop fields such as weeds, insects and weather still plague modern farmers today. Modern solutions like genetically modified pests are emerging to increase crop yield and food security for millions.

Issues Facing Farming

One key problem farmers face is pests. Pests such as the diamondback moth and the medfly are extremely dangerous to the health of key crops globally, and pests in general cause crop damage in one of two ways: they either eat or burrow into the plant, or they carry a disease that threatens the plant’s health. On a global scale, pests and the pathogens they carry are reducing crop yields major food crops by 10 to 40%. Furthermore, the resulting dead or inedible crops around the field lead to lower crop yields. In poverty-stricken areas, every crop is critical in preventing families from going hungry. For this reason, crop loss to pests is a massive problem that must be addressed.

Current Solutions and Room for Improvement

Farmers currently attempt to combat these insects with many types of pesticides, including insecticides. Insecticides are chemicals used in both rich and poor countries worldwide to kill the insects that threaten crops. Pesticides are utilized particularly heavily in South America, with insecticides comprising a significant component of total use: in fact, as of 2017, countries like Ecuador have used as many as 4,700 tons of insecticide on their crops to protect against dangerous insects.

With the heavy use of insecticides permeating agriculture globally, a major problem is on the horizon. The very insects these chemicals are designed to protect against are beginning to grow resistant to pesticides’ effects. This resistance leads to chemicals being unnecessarily sprayed on food crops, adversely affecting human health without protecting crops from any damage. Given the issues emerging from insecticide use, an innovative new solution is desperately needed.

A New Solution: Genetically Modified Pests

Valiant scientific efforts are emerging to curtail the issue of insecticide immunity. Oxitec, a company based in the U.K., has created a healthy and environmentally friendly solution to the pest dilemma. Their methods involve the “friendly” genetic modification of male pests to include a “self-limiting” gene. This gene is then passed on to wild females in affected areas. This gene kills off the female’s offspring before they can reach a mature enough age to reproduce, restricting population growth. The gene modification process ultimately shrinks the insect population, protecting more plants and increasing crop yield.

The benefits of Oxitec’s technology extend beyond plant protection. This gene also helps protect other insects, such as bees, that are vital to the agricultural process by killing off their predators. With a robust population, these insects can more efficiently pollinate and increase overall crop yields. Genetically modified pests are also beneficial to environmental and human health. Once properly implemented, this method completely replaces the insecticides that have been known to cause pollution and illness when applied in high volumes.

Impact of Genetically Modified Pests

Genetically modified pest control presents positive implications for poor farmers worldwide. This technique is cost-effective, as the work to defend against pests is done by the insects themselves in nature. Thus, participating farmers save money by no longer having to purchase insecticides and can use the extra funding to help increase crop yields, food supply and income. Additionally, the health benefits of removing insecticides from crops mean farmers and consumers alike benefit nutritionally. This is especially useful in regions where healthcare quality is poor or inaccessible. By removing the health risks of insecticide ingestion, those lacking adequate healthcare could experience a reduction in medical concerns.

By providing a plethora of agricultural, environmental and financial protections, genetically modified pests have the potential to improve the quality of life for millions of farmers. Better yet, this new method of pest control empowers farmers by allowing them to focus on improving other aspects of agriculture, which could increase food security and health for consumers across the globe.

– Domenic Scalora
Photo: Flickr

Pest ControlAgriculture is often crucial to the economies of lower-income nations. In Sub-Saharan Africa, more than 60% of the population is smallholding farmers and about 23% of the GDP comes from agriculture. Because of the importance of this industry, pest control can become a major issue in a lot of countries.

Influence of Pesticides

When pests are not properly handled, produce is damaged, which leads to reduced yields and profits. If crops are drastically damaged, it can lead to a decrease in food supply and an increase in prices. When pesticides were first introduced to farmers in Africa, it seemed to be a quick and easy form of pest control to fix their infestation problems. Pesticides increased yields, which led to higher household incomes and more trading. However, pesticides present their own set of obstacles. When mishandled, pesticides can be very dangerous. Many farmers lack the proper knowledge and equipment to safely administer the chemicals. This can cause health problems among farmers, contaminate soil and water sources, and result in pesticide-resistant insects.

Pesticidal Pollution in Kenya

A study conducted in 2016 that tested the water quality of Lake Victoria in Kenya revealed the negative impact pesticides had on the environment in the area.In May 1999, the European Union imposed a fish import ban on all fish from Lake Victoria when it was discovered 0rganochlorine pesticides were being used to fish in the lake. This ban resulted in an estimated $300 million loss for Kenya.

Organochlorine pesticides are mostly banned in high-income nations, but they are still used illegally in East Africa. Sometimes organochlorine pesticides are also used in East Africa for “public health vector control,” meaning to control the population of pests that spread diseases. The continued use of these pesticides is cited as a reason why pesticidal pollution was still found in Lake Victoria in 2016. Testing the water revealed that the pesticide concentrations in the lake were higher during the rainy seasons compared to the dry seasons. This led to the conclusion that the pesticides were entering the lake from contaminated runoff from surrounding farms. Those conducting the study concluded that the lake contaminations presented an immediate danger to the animals and humans relying on the lake as a food and water supply, due to the pesticide bioaccumulation entering the food chain.

Integrated Pest Management (IPM)

Cases such as Lake Victoria’s are why the government, academic and public agricultural agencies have been promoting the use of IPM. IPM is a system that aims to decrease the need for pesticides by “incorporating non-chemical techniques, such as pruning strategies or soil amendments that make plants less inviting to pests, using insect traps that monitor pest populations so growers can be more precise with chemical sprays or adopting pest-resistant crop varieties.” The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) have all supported the IPM process. Still, IMP has been slower to spread to the low-income nations of the world.

Whereas pesticides are made to be harmful and heavy-handed, IPM requires more finesse and care. IPM requires farmers to possess significant pest management knowledge in order to be effective. They must closely monitor their crops and keep detailed records. This is a difficult change for a farmer to make, especially when failure can have dire consequences, as they rely on their farms for food and income. However, with proper training and knowledge, IPM can present a good alternative for pest control to farmers who lack easy access to pesticides or can’t afford them.

The FAO has been using the Farmer Field School program to try to teach IPM and other sustainable farming practices to farmers in low-income nations. Programs like these are likely the most effective way to teach farmers about alternatives to pesticides. They may be able to help farmers in low-income nations find the resources necessary for safe and successful pest control.

Agriculture is often very important to the economies of lower-income nations. Improper use of pesticides, due to a lack of resources, can end up negatively impacting the environment in those areas where people are trying to grow crops. Programs like the Farmer Field School Program may be able to help lower-income nations transition to safer pesticide methods, such as IPM.

– Lindsey Shinkle
Photo: Flickr