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Sustainable farming: How technology can optimize food production

New research unites technology with farming expertise to develop diverse agricultural landscapes based on natural ecosystems.
Sustainable farming: How technology can optimize food production
Posted at 12:15 PM, Jul 06, 2023

In our current day and age, there are multiple threats to agricultural sustainability. But in this technological era, there are solutions not yet widely explored.

"Computational agroecology or agroecology in general does lend itself more, I think, to aligning with sustainable futures, because it allows for different plots of land to be different, to take advantage of what its local context is and to have mechanisms for enabling native species to work within that setting rather than simply to be removed," said Bill Tomlinson, a professor of informatics at the University of California Irvine. 

Tomlinson and other experts have been working to educate people on computational agroecology. The new research unites technology with farming expertise to develop diverse agricultural landscapes based on natural ecosystems.

"One [method] would be sensing. You could put little devices all over your farm every ten yards that say here is how much sun I'm getting, here is how much moisture I'm getting," Tomlinson added. "A second is there are also databases full of information like this."

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Having computational experts work with farmers essentially allows them to use data to make more concrete and conscious decisions. It allows them to explore thousands of different potential designs to optimize food production in the most sustainable way. 

Barath Raghavan is an associate professor of computer science and electrical engineering at the University of Southern California. He is also one of the brains behind rethinking traditional farming.

"The question is how do we create something that can function as well as a natural ecosystem, a natural forest, but it produces food for humans rather than wildlife," Raghavan said. "Ecosystems are complex, nature is complex and farming and nature are really slow."

He explains that what computing brings that farming hasn't had in the past is the ability to manage complexity, and do so quickly. It's a completely new way to think about agriculture. Farmers don't have the time and money for trial and error and there are only so many experts available worldwide.

"We're not producing enough of these experts. There's no pipeline, there's no training program to get these experts. We need not 100 of them, we need 100 million of them," Raghavan said. 

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The technology would give farmers the ability to compare and contrast different approaches to farming. They could identify their objectives and the technology would provide suggestions.

"Computational agroecology has some real potential in this domain because right now conventional agriculture is really problematic environmentally," Tomlinson said.

Raghavan says to think about the process like moves on a chessboard. Pests eat a certain crop and flooding damages another. Sun patterns change and so do temperatures. They are building a framework that allows farmers to play chess with nature and come up with the best board for each area of land.

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