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March 5, 2024

Bodies, Minds, and the Artificial Intelligence Industrial Complex, part six

What does the future of farming look like? To some pundits the answer is clear: “Connected sensors, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, robots, and big data analytics will be essential in effectively feeding tomorrow’s world. The future of agriculture will be smart, connected, and digital.”1

Proponents of artificial intelligence in agriculture argue that AI will be key to limiting or reversing biodiversity loss, reducing global warming emissions, and restoring resilience to ecosystems that are stressed by climate change.

There are many flavours of AI and thousands of potential applications for AI in agriculture. Some of them may indeed prove helpful in restoring parts of ecosystems.

But there are strong reasons to expect that AI in agriculture will be dominated by the same forces that have given the world a monoculture agri-industrial complex overwhelmingly dependent on fossil fuels. There are many reasons why we might expect that agri-industrial AI will lead to more biodiversity loss, more food insecurity, more socio-economic inequality, more climate vulnerability. To the extent that AI in agriculture bears fruit, many of these fruits are likely to be bitter.

Optimizing for yield

A branch of mathematics known as optimization has played a large role in the development of artificial intelligence. Author Coco Krumme, who earned a PhD in mathematics from MIT, traces optimization’s roots back hundreds of years and sees optimization in the development of contemporary agriculture.

In her book Optimal Illusions: The False Promise of Optimization, she writes,

“Embedded in the treachery of optimals is a deception. An optimization, whether it’s optimizing the value of an acre of land or the on-time arrival rate of an airline, often involves collapsing measurement into a single dimension, dollars or time or something else.”2

The “single dimensions” that serve as the building blocks of optimization are the result of useful, though simplistic, abstractions of the infinite complexities of our world. In agriculture, for example, how can we identify and describe the factors of soil fertility? One way would be to describe truly healthy soil as soil that contains a diverse microbial community, thriving among networks of fungal mycelia, plant roots, worms, and insect larvae. Another way would be to note that the soil contains sufficient amounts of at least several chemical elements including carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium. The second method is an incomplete abstraction, but it has the big advantage that it lends itself to easy quantification, calculation, and standardized testing. Coupled with the availability of similar simple quantified fertilizers, this method also allows for quick, “efficient,” yield-boosting soil amendments.

In deciding what are the optimal levels of certain soil nutrients, of course, we must also give an implicit or explicit answer to this question: “Optimal for what?” If the answer is, “optimal for soya production”, we are likely to get higher yields of soya – even if the soil is losing many of the attributes of health that we might observe through a less abstract lens. Krumme describes the gradual and eventual results of this supposedly scientific agriculture:

“It was easy to ignore, for a while, the costs: the chemicals harming human health, the machinery depleting soil, the fertilizer spewing into the downstream water supply.”3

The social costs were no less real than the environmental costs: most farmers, in countries where industrial agriculture took hold, were unable to keep up with the constant pressure to “go big or go home”. So they sold their land to the fewer remaining farmers who farmed bigger farms, and rural agricultural communities were hollowed out.

“But just look at those benefits!”, proponents of industrialized agriculture can say. Certainly yields per hectare of commodity crops climbed dramatically, and this food was raised by a smaller share of the work force.

The extent to which these changes are truly improvements is murky, however, when we look beyond the abstractions that go into the optimization models. We might want to believe that “if we don’t count it, it doesn’t count” – but that illusion won’t last forever.

Let’s start with social and economic factors. Coco Krumme quotes historian Paul Conkin on this trend in agricultural production: “Since 1950, labor productivity per hour of work in the non-farm sectors has increased 2.5 fold; in agriculture, 7-fold.”4

Yet a recent paper by Irena Knezevic, Alison Blay-Palmer and Courtney Jane Clause finds:

“Industrial farming discourse promotes the perception that there is a positive relationship—the larger the farm, the greater the productivity. Our objective is to demonstrate that based on the data at the centre of this debate, on average, small farms actually produce more food on less land ….”5

Here’s the nub of the problem: productivity statistics depend on what we count, and what we don’t count, when we tally input and output. Labour productivity in particular is usually calculated in reference to Gross Domestic Product, which is the sum of all monetary transactions.

Imagine this scenario, which has analogs all over the world. Suppose I pick a lot of apples, I trade a bushel of them with a neighbour, and I receive a piglet in return. The piglet eats leftover food scraps and weeds around the yard, while providing manure that fertilizes the vegetable garden. Several months later I butcher the pig and share the meat with another neighbour who has some chickens and who has been sharing the eggs. We all get delicious and nutritious food – but how much productivity is tallied? None, because none of these transactions are measured in dollars nor counted in GDP.

In many cases, of course, some inputs and outputs are counted while others are not. A smallholder might buy a few inputs such as feed grain, and might sell some products in a market “official” enough to be included in economic statistics. But much of the smallholder’s output will go to feeding immediate family or neighbours without leaving a trace in GDP.

If GDP had been counted when this scene was depicted, the sale of Spratt’s Pure Fibrine poultry feed may have been the only part of the operation that would “count”. Image: “Spratts patent “pure fibrine” poultry meal & poultry appliances”, from Wellcome Collection, circa 1880–1889, public domain.

Knezevic et al. write, “As farm size and farm revenue can generally be objectively measured, the productivist view has often used just those two data points to measure farm productivity.” However, other statisticians have put considerable effort into quantifying output in non-monetary terms, by estimating all agricultural output in terms of kilocalories.

This too is an abstraction, since a kilocalorie from sugar beets does not have the same nutritional impact as a kilocalorie from black beans or a kilocalorie from chicken – and farm output might include non-food values such as fibre for clothing, fuel for fireplaces, or animal draught power. Nevertheless, counting kilocalories instead of dollars or yuan makes possible more realistic estimates of how much food is produced by small farmers on the edge of the formal economy.

The proportions of global food supply produced on small vs. large farms is a matter of vigorous debate, and Knezevic et al. discuss some of widely discussed estimates. They defend their own estimate:

“[T]he data indicate that family farmers and smallholders account for 81% of production and food supply in kilocalories on 72% of the land. Large farms, defined as more than 200 hectares, account for only 15 and 13% of crop production and food supply by kilocalories, respectively, yet use 28% of the land.”6

They also argue that the smallest farms – 10 hectares (about 25 acres) or less – “provide more than 55% of the world’s kilocalories on about 40% of the land.” This has obvious importance in answering the question “How can we feed the world’s growing population?”7

Of equal importance to our discussion on the role of AI in agriculture, are these conclusions of Knezevic et al.: “industrialized and non-industrialized farming … come with markedly different knowledge systems,” and “smaller farms also have higher crop and non-crop biodiversity.”

Feeding the data machine

As discussed at length in previous installments, the types of artificial intelligence currently making waves require vast data sets. And in their paper advocating “Smart agriculture (SA)”, Jian Zhang et al. write, “The focus of SA is on data exploitation; this requires access to data, data analysis, and the application of the results over multiple (ideally, all) farm or ranch operations.”8

The data currently available from “precision farming” comes from large, well-capitalized farms that can afford tractors and combines equipped with GPS units, arrays of sensors tracking soil moisture, fertilizer and pesticide applications, and harvested quantities for each square meter. In the future envisioned by Zhang et al., this data collection process should expand dramatically through the incorporation of Internet of Things sensors on many more farms, plus a network allowing the funneling of information to centralized AI servers which will “learn” from data analysis, and which will then guide participating farms in achieving greater productivity at lower ecological cost. This in turn will require a 5G cellular network throughout agricultural areas.

Zhang et al. do not estimate the costs – in monetary terms, or in up-front carbon emissions and ecological damage during the manufacture, installation and operation of the data-crunching networks. An important question will be: will ecological benefits be equal to or greater than the ecological harms?

There is also good reason to doubt that the smallest farms – which produce a disproportionate share of global food supply – will be incorporated into this “smart agriculture”. Such infrastructure will have heavy upfront costs, and the companies that provide the equipment will want assurance that their client farmers will have enough cash outputs to make the capital investments profitable – if not for the farmers themselves, then at least for the big corporations marketing the technology.

A team of scholars writing in Nature Machine Intelligence concluded,

“[S]mall-scale farmers who cultivate 475 of approximately 570 million farms worldwide and feed large swaths of the so-called Global South are particularly likely to be excluded from AI-related benefits.”9

On the subject of what kind of data is available to AI systems, the team wrote,

“[T]ypical agricultural datasets have insufficiently considered polyculture techniques, such as forest farming and silvo-pasture. These techniques yield an array of food, fodder and fabric products while increasing soil fertility, controlling pests and maintaining agrobiodiversity.”

They noted that the small number of crops which dominate commodity crop markets – corn, wheat, rice, and soy in particular – also get the most research attention, while many crops important to subsistence farmers are little studied. Assuming that many of the small farmers remain outside the artificial intelligence agri-industrial complex, the data-gathering is likely to perpetuate and strengthen the hegemony of major commodities and major corporations.

Montreal Nutmeg. Today it’s easy to find images of hundreds varieties of fruit and vegetables that were popular more than a hundred years ago – but finding viable seeds or rootstock is another matter. Image: “Muskmelon, the largest in cultivation – new Montreal Nutmeg. This variety found only in Rice’s box of choice vegetables. 1887”, from Boston Public Library collection “Agriculture Trade Collection” on flickr.

Large-scale monoculture agriculture has already resulted in a scarcity of most traditional varieties of many grains, fruits and vegetables; the seed stocks that work best in the cash-crop nexus now have overwhelming market share. An AI that serves and is led by the same agribusiness interests is not likely, therefore, to preserve the crop diversity we will need to cope with an unstable climate and depleted ecosystems.

It’s marvellous that data servers can store and quickly access the entire genomes of so many species and sub-species. But it would be better if rare varieties are not only preserved but in active use, by communities who keep alive the particular knowledge of how these varieties respond to different weather, soil conditions, and horticultural techniques.

Finally, those small farmers who do step into the AI agri-complex will face new dangers:

“[A]s AI becomes indispensable for precision agriculture, … farmers will bring substantial croplands, pastures and hayfields under the influence of a few common ML [Machine Learning] platforms, consequently creating centralized points of failure, where deliberate attacks could cause disproportionate harm. [T]hese dynamics risk expanding the vulnerability of agrifood supply chains to cyberattacks, including ransomware and denial-of-service attacks, as well as interference with AI-driven machinery, such as self-driving tractors and combine harvesters, robot swarms for crop inspection, and autonomous sprayers.”10

The quantified gains in productivity due to efficiency, writes Coco Krumme, have come with many losses – and “we can think of these losses as the flip side of what we’ve gained from optimizing.” She adds,

“We’ll call [these losses], in brief: slack, place, and scale. Slack, or redundancy, cushions a system from outside shock. Place, or specific knowledge, distinguishes a farm and creates the diversity of practice that, ultimately, allows for both its evolution and preservation. And a sense of scale affords a connection between part and whole, between a farmer and the population his crop feeds.”11

AI-led “smart agriculture” may allow higher yields from major commodity crops, grown in monoculture fields on large farms all using the same machinery, the same chemicals, the same seeds and the same methods. Such agriculture is likely to earn continued profits for the major corporations already at the top of the complex, companies like John Deere, Bayer-Monsanto, and Cargill.

But in a world facing combined and manifold ecological, geopolitical and economic crises, it will be even more important to have agricultures with some redundancy to cushion from outside shock. We’ll need locally-specific knowledge of diverse food production practices. And we’ll need strong connections between local farmers and communities who are likely to depend on each other more than ever.

In that context, putting all our eggs in the artificial intelligence basket doesn’t sound like smart strategy.


Achieving the Rewards of Smart Agriculture,” by Jian Zhang, Dawn Trautman, Yingnan Liu, Chunguang Bi, Wei Chen, Lijun Ou, and Randy Goebel, Agronomy, 24 February 2024.

Coco Krumme, Optimal Illusions: The False Promise of OptimizationRiverhead Books, 2023, pg 181 A hat tip to Mark Hurst, whose podcast Techtonic introduced me to the work of Coco Krumme.

Optimal Illusions, pg 23.

Optimal Illusions, pg 25, quoting Paul Conkin, A Revolution Down on the Farm.

Irena Knezevic, Alison Blay-Palmer and Courtney Jane Clause, “Recalibrating Data on Farm Productivity: Why We Need Small Farms for Food Security,” Sustainability, 4 October 2023.

Knezevic et al., “Recalibrating the Data on Farm Productivity.”

Recommended reading: two farmer/writers who have conducted more thorough studies of the current and potential productivity of small farms are Chris Smaje and Gunnar Rundgren.

Zhang et al., “Achieving the Rewards of Smart Agriculture,” 24 February 2024.

Asaf Tzachor, Medha Devare, Brian King, Shahar Avin and Seán Ó hÉigeartaigh, “Responsible artificial intelligence in agriculture requires systemic understanding of risks and externalities,” Nature Machine Intelligence, 23 February 2022.

10 Asaf Tzachor et al., “Responsible artificial intelligence in agriculture requires systemic understanding of risks and externalities.”

11 Coco Krumme, Optimal Illusions, pg 34.

Bart Hawkins Kreps

Bart Hawkins Kreps is a long-time bicycling advocate and free-lance writer. His views have been shaped by work on highway construction and farming in the US Midwest, nine years spent in the Canadian arctic, and twenty years of involvement in the publishing industry in Ontario. Currently living on the outermost edge of the Toronto megalopolis, he blogs most often about energy, economics and ecology, at