Planning your dinner for a decade from now | Column
Florida farmers are looking ahead to put nutritious food on your plate years from now, writes a UF agricultural expert.
Rows of kale are shown on an organic farm in Opa-locka.
Rows of kale are shown on an organic farm in Opa-locka. [ WILFREDO LEE | AP ]
Published Nov. 25, 2020

Farmers and scientists are working now on your dinner for 2030. Better-tasting vegetables. Food that can contribute to healing. Fruit from a nearby farm, not from another hemisphere. Food produced in ways that protect the environment and even fight climate change.

You eat better when Florida farmers work smarter. All you need to do is buy local and dig in.

The same technology behind self-driving cars is going to help plant breeders improve your favorite foods and put a scientific expert in the palm of a farmer’s hand as she walks her field, grove or ranch.

J. Scott Angle
J. Scott Angle [ Provided ]

We all have way more data than we can make sense of. Artificial intelligence (AI) is how farmers and agricultural scientists can get a handle on it and translate all this information into wisdom. AI can rapidly scan millions of images to spot a dangerous insect or a disease. It can take information from the soil, the stem and the sky, blend it together and recommend what each plant needs.

For example, on a research farm south of Tampa, a team of scientists has a prototype that cruises rows of tomatoes looking for weeds. Camera eyes take in everything growing, a tractor-mounted computer sifts through the images to separate weed from tomato plant, and the equipment delivers a directed stream of herbicide only at the weeds. It saves farmers money, it reduces the chance of excess herbicide washing off the farm and into groundwater or streams, and most importantly, it doesn’t go on your food.

We’re about to do a whole lot more of this. The University of Florida’s recently announced $70 million AI initiative establishes food and agriculture as one of its chief fields of focus. The scientific breakthroughs it drives will show up on your plate every day. It can help make what you eat tastier, more locally sourced and better for you.

AI gives UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) researchers a better chance at creating a great Florida-grown blackberry or olive – and creating an industry around it that produces jobs, sales and tax revenue to pay for public services. It took a couple of decades to do this with blueberries, but technology could compress this hunt for the next great Florida crop.

Innovation has kept us globally competitive for decades. AI that speeds development of a machine-harvested tomato or blueberry, for example, can cut costs enough to keep many Florida farms in business even when global competitors subsidized by their governments send artificially cheap food to our supermarkets.

Without the kind of technological edge that AI holds the potential to deliver, the future of Florida farms is in doubt. Keeping Florida farming profitable means your family can spend a Sunday at a U-pick farm, drink Florida OJ at breakfast, enjoy salads full of crisp locally grown vegetables at lunch, savor Florida watermelon at summer barbecues, spread peanut butter made with Panhandle peanuts on your kids’ sandwiches and so much more. It also means 1.7 million Florida jobs in the agriculture, food and natural resources sector.

Technology will have to play a central role in a planetary struggle to feed 10 billion people by mid-century with less water, land and chemicals than we use now. We need to innovate our way to feed more with less.

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UF/IFAS works with farmers every day on how to improve the way Florida produces its own food in support of the state’s second-largest industry.

We need science more than ever right now. Robots and smartphones using artificial intelligence to coach farmers are going to be a key to the state’s health and prosperity in the next decade. It’s a future so close we can taste it.

Scott Angle is the University of Florida’s vice president for Agriculture and Natural Resources and leader of the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS). Reach him at