Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the Development of Agriculture and Food Sectors in Oil Rich Guyana (Part 2, Challenges)

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OilNOW
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By Dr. Arlington Chesney – OilNOW

Part 1 described the rapidly growing global importance of AI, including both algorithmic and autonomous devices on the development of the agriculture and food sectors; identified possible areas of their sustainable use in Guyana; and noted that its successful use would depend on adequate and competent Human Intelligence. 

It is very likely that global food threats could increase because of climate change induced events, such as, droughts, extreme heat, hurricanes and floods; the Russia/Ukraine war; and export bans. Recently, Russia has unilaterally ended the Black Sea Grain Deal that allowed passage of major quantities of globally traded cereals and oil seeds from Ukraine. In addition, India, a major rice producer, has halted its export. This makes more urgent the need for the successful implementation of CARICOM’s 25×2025 food security initiative. For social, economic and security reasons, Guyana and CARICOM cannot continue to be uncertain as to their source of basic food requirements.

The adage “Who feeds us leads us” must remain uppermost in mind.

Artificial Intelligence is considered to be the catalytic, next wave of truly transformative technology with un-envisioned potential. Indeed, some suggest that it’s the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Hence, there’s the significant possibility of it playing a significant role in the expansion, modernisation, enhanced competitiveness and sustainability of Guyana’s agricultural and food sectors. Agriculture, as a key economic driver, is a critical contributor to minimising the chances of Guyana experiencing the “resource curse”. Consequently, it’s important to identify possible challenges. 

Globally, Goldman Sachs has predicted that AI could replace 300 million jobs. Similarly, the World Economic Forum surmised that AI could disrupt 25% of available jobs. In Guyana’s agriculture and food sectors, this potential loss could occur in the field, in the factory, in marketing and distribution, particularly supermarkets, and in research activities, particularly proposal preparation.

The available literature, albeit from the developed world, postulated that medium and large farms can use autonomous equipment to reduce unit production costs and achieve acceptable per unit profitability.

Accordingly, only sugar and rice cultivation on the coastal areas and pastures, cereals and legumes in the Intermediate and Rupununi Savannahs, may possibly benefit from the use of autonomous equipment. However, because of the huge capital expenditure of the equipment and the cost and time needed for testing, it’s most unlikely that the sugar and rice industries would achieve any significant increases in Return on Investment. For the Savannahs, provided that use is assessed as sustainable, these would primarily be “new” developments with an expansion, not reduction, in the work force.

Cheaper, more capable and flexible technologies are accelerating the use of autonomous equipment in the modern factory. This process is being further accelerated by their increasing ability to: sequentially undertake variable tasks; compensate for quality issues; work within an integrated workforce; and operate efficiently with reducing output volumes. Within Guyana, most agroprocessing factories are likely to be small to medium. Within that context, the use of AI equipment, beyond the automatic fillers and conveyor belts would require critical assessment from social, technical and economic considerations.

Artificial Intelligence will continue to be innovative and transformative in food marketing and distribution. For example, ChatGPT and similar platforms can quickly and accurately prepare promotional documentation. Further, it is poised to “catapult” in the supermarket industry, including data driven decision making, supply chain management, inventory control, quality control and resulting improved customer service. This is an area that could impact negatively on current and future jobs.

Guyana would need to conduct much critical research in the expansion/modernisation of its agricultural and food sectors. This research would relate to the “new” crops and livestock being introduced commercially; the “new” ecological zones being opened up for development; the entirety of selected value chains; and, superimposed on these factors, appropriate AI devices and technologies. 

Professionals in the University and government parastatals and ministries could be tempted to use ChatGPT and Google’s Bard with their improved language capabilities and ability to rapidly collect, sort and analyse massive quantities of information. However, caution is required as their unbridled use in sectors, such as, legal, education and media, have led to substantial financial and other penalties.

There are many ethical challenges and risks with the use of AI devices that need continuous assessment and proactive management. These include transparency, accountability, confidentiality, robustness, sustainability and fairness. The metrics that are assessed for these ethical issues are generally subjective and qualitative and attract lengthy, robust and contentious discussion. Such discussion can’t be accommodated here. However, Guyana reportedly has an unfavourable Human Inequality Index. Therefore, fairness is highlighted to underscore the need to minimise bias in favour of special interest organisations, groups and demographics.

There are potential security challenges with the use of AI in agriculture. For example, with the use of algorithms, the need for adopting safety measures and maintaining confidentiality has to be always taken into consideration. Similarly, as the size of drones has been increasing to enable them to economically and cost effectively apply fertilisers and pesticides, there is the possibility of them being used for non-agricultural, perhaps criminal, activities. Consequently, Guyana must seriously consider the development of design and regulatory policies on the use of autonomous devices. These considerations could be influenced by the international movement, led by Costa Rica, to regulate autonomous devices in their possible use as carriers of weapon systems.

Because of these challenges, particularly security, the Government should develop institutional and policy regimes to manage the use of AI in Agriculture. However, AI use is not confined to agriculture. It transcends sectors. Therefore, overall policy and direction could reside in a National Centre with the Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) providing specific sectoral inputs.

The MOA may conduct (a) training of groups, such as, researchers, proposal writers, agri-entrepreneurs and administrators, (b) public sensitisation, and (c) research on the most appropriate and sustainable AI devices and their applicability of use within selected agricultural systems.

Further, the MOA may consider establishing an AI Unit. However, since this initiative is new to all CARICOM, Guyana, as Lead Country for agriculture and food, could seek support from development, research and education agencies operational in CARICOM. For example, IICA, FAO, and the Universities of Guyana and the West Indies, as part of the recently established Consortium of CARICOM Universities involved in Agricultural Education and Research. Private sector involvement, through the Caricom Private Sector Organisation, is recommended.

The use of AI in agriculture reportedly accelerates the achievement of production goals whilst simultaneously enhancing industry sustainability. Therefore, it is urgent to initiate laying the foundation for the use of AI in the agricultural and food sectors in CARICOM. Significant preparatory work, with associated financial resources, is required to minimise the inevitable “teething” challenges and risks. 

The Guyana Government should consider providing from its oil and gas revenue at least “seed” monies for a well-defined and focused Programme for the use of AI in agriculture. This could also take the form of a partnership with the Stabroek Consortium or major oil-funded charitable initiatives like the Greater Guyana Initiative or the ExxonMobil Foundation, given their interest in economic diversification. 

International funding could be attracted. Possibly, for example, from the approximately US$100 million from the USA/CARICOM flagship partnership PACC 2030 Programme and the €45 billion identified in July 2023 by the European Union for investment in the Economic Community of Latin American and Caribbean States.

CARICOM must develop and operationalise time driven strategies for the inescapable advent of AI in their agriculture and food sectors.  Since a vibrant and sustainable agricultural sector, that benefits from a “protected” CARICOM market, will contribute significantly to Guyana addressing the resource curse, it must consider taking the lead.

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