September 24, 2023

Some of the solutions that integrative precision agriculture promises an industry that is embracing the power of technology to address both age-old and new challenges include spray drones with pinpoint accuracy, produce-picking robots, autonomous systems to monitor broiler chicken health, and artificial intelligence to predict yield before the buds have faded from the trees.

The first International Conference for Integrative Precision Agriculture, a multidisciplinary gathering intended to harness collective expertise to address the challenge of feeding a global population that is expected to exceed 9 billion people by 2050 and bring with it an estimated 70% increase in food demand, brought together students, scientists, and agrotechnology leaders from around the world May 18–19 at the University of Georgia.

“Precision agriculture holds great promise to solve many of the challenges our world faces,” said S. Jack Hu, UGA Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost, who led the initiative to establish the university’s Institute for Integrative Precision Agriculture in 2022. The institute’s goal is to attract and bring together interdisciplinary researchers to develop next-generation technologies that will provide holistic solutions to problems defined by the food and agriculture industries. The institution “offers a forum for ongoing discussions and idea-generation, ensuring that the link between industry and academia persists beyond the initial identification of a problem.”

In order to use technological advancements and big data to sustainably feed the world’s expanding population, the institute formally brings together faculty from UGA’s Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, College of Family and Consumer Sciences, School of Computing, and College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (CAES).

Nearly 200 people listened as Georgia producers and business executives spoke about their most urgent requirements while U.S. and foreign business leaders presented potential answers and ways for producers to learn about and embrace new technology.

One of the main areas where new technology might assist growers, according to Jessica Brim, director of food safety at Lewis Taylor Farms in Tifton, Georgia, is labor availability and labor prices. Every year, Lewis Taylor Farms grows produce on more than 6,500 acres, the majority of which is gathered by hand.

“There are so many ways we can see that could be developed to make our systems better, lower those costs, and make what we grow more marketable,” she said. “Helping farmers in the future be able to lower labor costs by having more innovation in the field — having sensors on machinery to help us see if that product is ready to be harvested and to be able to pull it off the vine without losing the complete plant in the process.”

Producers at the conference were particularly interested in more effective and quick ways to gather crucial data on crops or livestock, according to Lawton Pearson, owner of Pearson Farm, a peach and pecan producer in Fort Valley, Georgia. He added that weather variations necessitate a lot of “guess-timation” on the part of farmers when estimating crop yield. “We have to continue to do a lot by hand until there is a radical shift in technology that allows us to do more of these tasks automatically.”

The second day of the conference was devoted to the chicken sector, improving production efficiency, and changing consumer scrutiny of production, animal welfare, and food safety.

Lawton Pearson, owner of Pearson Farm, a peach and pecan producer in Fort Valley, Georgia, describes the laborious process of yield forecasting at the inaugural IIPA conference at UGA.
Lawton Pearson, owner of Pearson Farm, a peach and pecan producer in Fort Valley, Georgia, describes the laborious process of yield forecasting at the inaugural IIPA conference at UGA. (Photo by Maria Lameiras)

Speaking at the event was Karen Christensen, senior director of animal welfare at Tyson Foods. “Technology is going to move this industry forward and, from my perspective, I think it’s going to have a huge effect from a welfare perspective on how we care for birds,” she said. We have a responsibility to feed the world, and we will continue to do so, but we need guidance in figuring out how to use new technology to fulfill this duty more effectively, quickly, and better.

In order to solve the issues raised, experts from the Institute for Integrative Precision Agriculture and people of the sector will collaborate and set up grassroots research teams.

George Vellidis, University Professor in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences at CAES and one of the conference’s organizers, said, “Our goal for this conference was to portray the problems that our growers are having in the state and across the Southeast and then have a list of experts from academia and from industry who can help us understand what the current state-of-the-art is in precision agriculture.” “We want to determine how those technological solutions can be utilized to the issues the state is currently facing.”

Sonny Perdue, chancellor of the University System of Georgia, addressed the audience on the significance of the Institute for Integrative Precision Agriculture and the potential solutions that would result from the alliances it fosters.

“We are fortunate to live in a nation where we have food independence in the United States. How will that be maintained? Robotic processing, machine learning, and other technology advancements will be required. There are already fewer people working in agriculture on the fields, and there will be fewer in the future, according to Perdue. “For our country, maintaining a lead in food production is essential. We eagerly anticipate both what you will learn and what we will learn together that will benefit humanity.

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