AI-griculture, A High-Tech Approach to Decarbonizing Agricultural Food Supply Chains

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One of the largest contributors to climate change worldwide, the agricultural food supply chain crosses international borders and reaches across industries and sectors. Reducing its environmental impact requires complex, high-tech solutions like artificial intelligence—and the people to implement them at the right time, in the right places.

Delve’s video and accompanying article are based on AI and Digital Ecosystem Transformation for Decarbonizing Agri-Food Supply Chains Around the World,” a Precision Convergence Science and Innovation Hybrid Event held on February 24, 2023 at McGill University, co-presented by McGill’s Sustainable Growth Initiative and the Centre for the Convergence of Health and Economics.

Today, researchers and industry are adopting an ecosystem approach based on precision convergence science and innovation, working together rather than separately to address an overarching challenge: How can the food supply chain industry act as an entry point to reach decarbonization and net-zero emissions by 2050?

In the wake of Canada’s announcement for a National Adaptation Strategy on climate change, new initiatives have emerged to tackle the cross-disciplinary problem of climate change resilience and adaptation. The Desautels Faculty of Management Sustainable Growth Initiative (SGI) and the McGill Centre for the Convergence of Health and Economics (MCCHE) recently welcomed scholars and business representatives to discuss the role of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies and collaborative digital ecosystems in transforming the agri-food sector.

Laurette Dubé, Desautels professor and founder of the MCCHE, says that sustainability in the field of agriculture is a problem that demands collaboration between corporations, policymakers, and research institutions. Faced with the problem’s global scale and variety of stakeholders, Dubé suggests the solution in a vital question: “How can we codesign, implement, and monitor lasting multiscale intervention strategies that explicitly consider multilevel and multi-entity capabilities, resources, and interests?”

Sustainability in the field of agriculture is a problem that demands collaboration.

Economic solutions for reshaping the agricultural industry

The agri-food sector in Canada is responsible for over 10% of the country’s total carbon emissions, excluding the additional impacts of fertilizer use. Globally, the agriculture and food sectors account for over 20% of carbon emissions. As the world works towards a 45% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030, as stipulated in the Paris Agreement, many countries have moved beyond guidelines by introducing strict regulations.

While Canada does not yet require public companies to disclose environmental, social, and governance initiatives (ESG), the EU’s new Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CRSD) does extend to listed small and medium-sized enterprises. Eugenio Longo, the Sustainability Director at Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), looked into the CRSD as one potential solution that countries such as Canada can learn from and embrace similar directives.

TCS is a multinational information consultancy firm that offers technology-powered sustainability services worldwide. In 2022, Brand Finance ranked TCS as the world’s 2nd most valuable IT services brand. Longo regards digital technology as a catalyst to optimizing the amount of resources used on a daily basis, but he emphasizes that the heart of sustainability is in sustainable finance. According to the TCS European Sustainability Strategy, businesses and stakeholders must shift from the mindset of mitigation to one focused on regeneration. To facilitate this shift, businesses must adopt what TCS terms as an ‘ecosystem approach’ in which multiple businesses––each one representative of its own small ecosystem––must collaborate on environmentally responsible projects to reach one sustainable global ecosystem.

Businesses must adopt an ecosystem approach.

“The enemy of the ecosystem is silo-thinking,” Longo says. To effect change, corporations must take an ecosystem approach to the scope of decarbonization by acknowledging all stakeholders and understanding the climate realities caused by pollution. Longo emphasizes the need for any solution to be both innovative and human centric. He states that the gravity of the environmental situation, and the potential of their solutions, must be shared across communities: “A society that will drive the change is one which is well informed.”

Human factors are especially essential in the search for technological solutions to creating a climate resistant Canada, says Mehmet Tulbek, President of the Saskatchewan Food Industry Development Centre. The centre provides a regional approach to the widespread issue of food waste—currently, one third of all food produced globally is lost or wasted.

“We will not only work with the industry, but we will also focus on food security and tackling food loss and food waste,” Tulbek attests, adding that “it is essential to consider the people who will use these technologies.”

Helping small businesses adapt to rapid transformations

The government of Canada considers 97.9% of the nation’s businesses as small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Spread across Canada and across industry sectors, small and medium-sized enterprises clearly play a key role in climate sustainability. As the recently launched McGill Desautels-founded social platform PIVOT has also shown, direct collaboration between a variety of SMEs has an impact on climate sustainability.

Canada’s carbon prices have left small and medium-sized businesses financially vulnerable.

“With climate change, competition will not get us anywhere, collaboration will,” says Megan Chiu, leader of the Climate Office for Deloitte Canada. Deloitte’s climate action program Fast 50 is one part of a larger collaboration with companies of various sizes. Some of the main obstacles to a just and equitable transition for companies of all sizes include the costs of sustainable supply chains and ESG reporting and disclosure, as well as that of the supporting digital technology. The recently launched ISED-Funded MiXER platform connecting all agri-food enterprises of all sizes across Canada, developed under MCCHE leadership as part of the National FCI-Canada platform, is an example of such supporting digital technology.

While ESG reporting is voluntary in Canada, the government introduced mandatory carbon pricing in 2016 that has risen to $50 per tonne and is set to increase by $15 per tonne until 2050. However, since the carbon tax systems also vary on a provincial level, and the federal implementation plan lacks a reporting system, Canada’s carbon prices have left small and medium-sized businesses financially vulnerable. Climate policies need to look beyond the large-scale players to investigate how smaller enterprises can participate in forming sustainable solutions.

Towards a global AI infrastructure

As research institutions and farming equipment companies introduce AI technology to the agricultural sector, data sharing and accessibility have become increasingly important to effect widespread change.

D.K. Panda and Rhagu Machiraju, leading researchers on project ICICLE: Intelligent CI with Computational Learning in the Environment focus on both the potential of AI to make the agri-food sector sustainable and the accessibility to this innovative technology. At its foundation, ICICLE adopts an ecosystem approach as a collaborative project that moves beyond one region. Based at The Ohio State University, project ICICLE has $20 million in funding by the National Science Foundation (NSF). ICICLE involves 14 organizations, 46 investors, and collaborates internationally with the Innovation Centre at Bombay (IIT-B).

The project envisions cyber infrastructures tailored to unique resource demands through aerial crop scouting, heat maps and crop health modelling sensors. Using AI drones to identify diseases in crops has the potential to reduce the overuse of pesticides by providing farmers with information in real time.

In some ways, the future role of AI in the farming industry can already be seen through the recent release of new technology by farming equipment companies. For example, the fully autonomous 8R farm tractor, introduced to the markets by John Deere & Co. in 2022, centralizes the use of digital technology in daily agricultural routines. Project ICICLE goes beyond the level of automated farming equipment by considering the full potential of data collection and the need to make data interpretation widely accessible.

Making data and AI technologies accessible

D.K. Panda references one major challenge to his project’s vision: “A lot of farmers say they want to use the technology, but they do not understand the data.” In response to this question, ICICLE addresses the need for federated learning to combat challenges that arise once accurate data is collected. In addition to artificial intelligence, ICICLE also aims to discover what Cyber Infrastructure (CI) for digital agriculture might look like. Machiraju, who participates in innovation ecosystems workshops for adaptive sustainable health, continues to look for partnerships as project ICICLE progresses: “How can we scale digital agriculture CI via collaboration?”

Developments in AI are propelling Canada towards solutions for a climate-resilient future by working in opposition to the carbon-emitting tools of the past. As Dubé states, “The 250 years or so since the first industrial revolution is one or two seconds in 24 hours of the journey of evolution for mankind. There is room for transformation; it is possible.”

How can we scale digital agriculture cyber infrastructure via collaboration?

The nature of information about new technologies is especially important as AI technology enters the marketplace and farmers look for ways to fund their use of the technology and to understand the full scope of the data it collects. Data collected on the farm follow up a long journey through supply chains and markets before translating into economic, health, and environmental impact.

To respond quickly to the urgent race against climate change, stakeholders must not only build on the capacity of digital technologies to provide information but also ensure that this information is widely accessible and the product of collaboration.

Whether collaboration occurs through the enactment of ESG reporting structures or through reforms to a carbon tax, economic and technological solutions have a vital role to play in collective convergence outcomes. To ensure a better future, it is time more than ever to capitalize on the digital transformation brought about by the 4th industrial revolution.

For more insights, watch the Delve video summary of the conference.

Javad Nasiry
Professor, Operations Management; Director, Sustainable Growth Initiative (SGI)
Laurette Dubé
Professor, Marketing; James McGill Chair of Consumer and Lifestyle Psychology and Marketing; Chair and Scientific Director, McGill Centre for the Convergence of Health and Economics
Mehmet Gumus
Professor, Operations Management; Bensadoun Faculty Scholar
DK Panda
Professor and University Distinguished Scholar, Computer Science and Engineering, Ohio State University
Raghu Machiraju
Professor, Department of Biomedical Informatics and the Department of Computer Science and Engineering; Interim Faculty Lead of Translational Data Analysis, Ohio State University
Eugenio Longo
Tirtha Dhar
Associate Professor, Department of Marketing and Consumer Studies, College of Business and Economics, University of Guelph
Megan Chiu
Technology Consultant to Deloitte Canada Sustainability Office

Article and conference interviews by: Ariella Kharasch

This Delve video is excerpted from the Desautels Faculty of Management’s “AI and Digital Ecosystem Transformation for Decarbonizing Agri-Food Supply Chains Around the World,” a Precision Convergence Science and Innovation Hybrid Event held on February 24, 2023 at McGill University, co-presented by McGill’s Sustainable Growth Initiative (SGI) and the McGill Centre for the Convergence of Health and Economics (MCCHE).

Delve video editing by: Sofia Chaudruc, from original video by McGill Office of the Vice-Principal.

Photo by: Owen Egan