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Thursday, February 29, 2024
Feb. 29, 2024

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Senators embrace AI on the farm, eye provisions in farm bill

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Artificial intelligence is already a workhorse in the technology that allows tractors to identify weeds and tailor herbicide spraying, determine when a crop is ready to harvest and weave together satellite and soil data to make efficient use of fertilizer.

But Senate Agriculture Committee members said Tuesday that AI’s potential to bring more advances in agriculture comes with risks about farm data protection; the affordability of technology, particularly for small farms; consolidation in the sector; and other, unforeseen consequences.

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said the committee and Congress will have to balance policies that encourage innovation but protect against excesses. He told witnesses that he is working on legislation to put up guardrails while maintaining “a light touch” on regulations.

One witness at the panel’s hearing urged senators to include provisions in the farm bill that would allow farmers to get loans from the Agriculture Department that would encourage adoption of AI and precision technology. Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., suggested such provisions look likely.

Lawmakers are working on a continuing resolution that would extend the 2018 farm bill to Sept. 30, 2024. The bill expired on Sept. 30 and an extension would give Congress time to write a new farm bill. The House passed the CR on Tuesday and the Senate may take it up as early as Wednesday.

José-Marie Griffiths, president of Dakota State University in South Dakota, which has a focus on AI, cyber and quantum computing, called for a measured approach on regulation.

“I do believe strongly in a lighter touch than heavy-duty regulation because the moment regulation gets to be too much, innovation shrinks naturally,” Griffiths said. “I think it is important that we ensure that innovation can occur but at the same time have these guardrails to mitigate risks.”

Stabenow and ranking member John Boozman, R-Ark., convened the hearing to delve into the potential promise and peril of AI in food production, processing and related areas. The hearing follows several special briefings open to all senators on the broad use of artificial intelligence and an Oct. 30 presidential executive order directing federal departments and agencies to promote AI use while also ensuring the technology is safe and free of bias.

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Stabenow, who used AI to write part of her opening statement, said the technology opens “new pathways to address the climate crisis, increase production, lower input costs and automate planting and harvesting.”

But she also cautioned that “placing vast amounts of data in the hands of a few private companies could accelerate the trend of consolidation in the agricultural industry or perpetuate bias that has harmed small farmers and farmers of color for decades.”

Boozman also had words of caution.

“While AI holds great potential, we should ask tough questions about the potential risks,” he said.

Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., said lack of access to reliable high-speed internet services is a major hurdle for farmers and ranchers who might be willing to shoulder technology costs. Fischer and Sen. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., have legislation that would establish a USDA program with a mission to make broadband available to farmers and ranchers so they can use precision agriculture as they work in remote fields. Fischer said other USDA broadband efforts focus on reaching households or businesses.

Jahmy Hindman, senior vice president and chief technology officer for Deere & Co., said the next farm bill should include provisions from that legislation as well as from another bill from Fischer and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., that would set up a USDA loan program to cover the cost of precision technology.

Hindman said the provisions were “essential for farmers to fully leverage the benefits of AI and precision technologies.”

Stabenow agreed, telling Fischer that she and Boozman had discussed her legislation and “having your work become part of what we’re doing in the farm bill.”

Sens. Peter Welch, D-Vt., and Luján raised questions about access to AI products for small or non-English-speaking producers.

“It’s an opportunity for bigger ag where you can spread the costs over time, but for a lot of smaller producers there’s a lot of skepticism about whether they can get a return on investment,” Welch said. “With the entry cost, how can we do things that will help the smaller farmers when they are not going to be able to take that risk with the higher front costs?”

Mason Earles, an assistant professor at University of California, Davis who is part of the AI Institute for Next Generation Food Systems, said small farmers could use AI as a tool for helping them make decisions about their operations, much in the way they have worked with USDA extension agents.

Earles also said smartphones could be a lower-cost way to use some AI systems without the overhead costs of more complex technology.

“I think there is an opportunity for using things people already own. Our phones are loaded with many types of sensors. We may not realize it but there are probably 15 different types of sensors on your cameras. So I think there is an opportunity for smaller farmers,” he said.

Luján asked about the ease of Spanish-speaking farmers or workers making use of AI products in the U.S.

Earles, who has founded an agriculture startup, said that market shouldn’t be ignored.

“If someone is not doing this, then the technology is not going to penetrate the market,” he said, adding that not adapting creates an obstacle “if there is not an effort to make Spanish first, or at least bilingual, in these tools, especially specialty crops where we have predominantly Spanish-speaking workers.”

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