The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced plans to limit states’ abilities to tighten restrictions on federal pesticides, according to Politico, alarming state regulators. The EPA had discreetly indicated at the end of March that it was preparing to override states’ efforts to enact stricter pesticides regulations, which often take the form of stricter cut-off dates when pesticides can be applied, or requirements for better training and certifications for pesticide applicators that go above and beyond the EPA’s existing requirements. These rules are intended to prevent crop damage or environmental harm, and they’re especially critical when it comes to regulation of dicamba, an herbicide used to control weeds that are resistant to the commonly used weedkiller Roundup.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the EPA’s announcement has caused consternation in a number of circles, especially amongst those concerned that federal rules simply don’t regulate certain pesticides strongly enough. Rose Kachadoorian, for example, president of the Association of American Pesticide Control Officials, says the current system already works well, and she doesn't see what problem the agency is trying to address with its move. Barbara Glenn, CEO of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA), has asked the EPA to consult with state regulators before making a final decision.
At a time when the Trump administration has made repeated efforts to hobble the EPA’s ability to carry out its mandate, these officials’ concerns are understandable. After all, it makes perfect sense that individual states should have the right to limit the times when pesticides can be sprayed on crops within their territory, or to require that technicians responsible for applying such potentially toxic chemicals have adequate training to do their jobs.
A silver lining?
The news is certainly concerning, but there is a bright side to this story. Whatever move the federal government may take, in the private sector, many agricultural companies have already seen the writing on the wall, and are far ahead of the government in working to balance crop protection needs against environmental and public health concerns. In fact, many ag companies have already begun investing in new technologies that will permit more targeted use of pesticides, because it simply makes good business sense to do so.
Artificial intelligence (AI) in particular has been a game-changing technology when it comes to these efforts, and even firms not traditionally involved in agriculture have begun investing in this sector – including tech behemoths like IBM. Utilizing artificial intelligence, IBM says it's able to improve predictions of crop yields by crunching data on weather patterns, soil moisture, and similar data. By knowing where crops are most vulnerable and most in need of support from pesticides and herbicides to boost production, AI can logically help farmers determine where agricultural chemicals are less needed, and reduce applications in those areas. Indeed, CleanTechnica.com reports that when AI is used as part of the phenomenon known as "precision farming," it's been shown to reduce the need for pesticide use even as it increases crop yields.
And not just in America. In India, the non-profit Wadhwani Institute for Artificial Intelligence has demonstrated how AI can be used to analyze samples of pests collected at Indian cotton farms to identify the specific insects infecting a crop, and recommend targeting these problematic species with pesticides specifically tailored to eliminate them. Armed with such knowledge, farmers can reduce their usage of more broad-spectrum insecticides that might harm beneficial bugs in an attempt to defeat harmful pests.
It's also worth pointing out that "artificial intelligence" is a broad term meaning different things to different people. In addition to referring to the use of computing power to analyze "big data" to recommend solutions, AI is also often used to refer to high-technology solutions in general. In the context of agriculture, for example, AI is sometimes viewed as encompassing robotics technologies such as driverless tractors (which reduce labor costs invested in time consuming and monotonous tasks such as tilling fields, harvesting grains, and applying fertilizers) and drones (which can survey large areas of land quickly and cheaply, from the sky).
More than just data generators, drones can even be outfitted as aerial pesticide applicators, leapfrogging areas of fields not requiring pesticides to pinpoint areas that do – cutting pesticide use by as much as 30% in some cases.
Perhaps most optimistic of all, the same companies that profit most from increased pesticide usage have the potential to continue profiting – and perhaps even grow their profits faster – as AI is leveraged to make smarter and more efficient use of lower levels of pesticides. Foodtank.com, for instance, notes that "the same four mega-corporations that" dominate the market for pesticides globally, Bayer-Monsanto, DowDuPont, Syngenta-ChemChina, and BASF, are all also involved in the move to use AI to improve the intelligent use of such chemicals. What's more, market analyst WiseGuyReports estimates that growth in agricultural AI products are likely to approach 25% annually over the next five years, rising from US$330 million in global revenue in 2019, to as much as $980 million by 2024.
That kind of growth rate compares quite favorably to the 10% long-term growth rate that analysts posit for Bayer-Monsanto, for example, according to Yahoo! Finance (not to mention the 3% growth rate projected for BASF).
By selling farmers access to AI products such as Bayer-Monsanto’s Climate FieldView, DowDupont’s Granular, Encirca and AcreValue, Syngenta’s AgriEdge Excelsior, and BASF’s Xarvio and Maglis, these same companies can not only reduce harm to the environment (and their own end-users), but trade slow-growing pesticide profits for fast-growing, high-margin profits from selling advice and information garnered through AI.
Forward-thinking firms like these are at the forefront when it comes balancing agricultural challenges against environmental and health concerns. Unfortunately, it’s an open question whether the federal government will get on the bandwagon, and support research in this field – or simply continue trying to regulate the crop protection methods of the past.