Author: Oscar Pusey, Junior Analyst at Zero Carbon Academy
The power of AI is undeniable, and now its abundance is growing across a range of sustainable practises, how much further can it go? And what can it do for you?
UN FOA collaboration with academia to bring new solutions to old problems
AI is no longer just a plot device in your favourite sci-fi novel. Now more than ever, engaging with the innovative and potentially unifying process of AI can be a powerful tool for increasing our capacity to meet modern challenges, and a key area for collaboration across borders.
Academics from the Netherlands and the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FOA) have begun a critical new program to enhance the identification and assessment of fish species and populations in the Nile Basin, using cutting-edge artificial intelligence technologies. By increasing the collection of crucial data from fishing communities across the region, it might become a key instrument in the battle for sustainability and food security. The project, aided by Wageningen University and Research in the Netherlands, is the latest development in a decades-long effort (which began in the 1970s by FAO) to help countries carry out improved recognition of species for fisheries purposes, so that the collection of data about fish catches can be enhanced and the fishing industry improved.[i]
Source: Stock image
The technologies have arisen as a result of important new research, aided by artificial intelligence, that could improve ocean conservation efforts, which are vital given the status of many of the world's fish species. Species tracking using advanced technology can now be so comprehensive that the data can even detect the freshness of fish, which was once an extremely expensive and time-consuming operation carried out by observers aboard vessels.[ii]
A growing portfolio of technologically innovative projects for the FAO
The FAO like all other UN organisations is driven by sustainable development goals (SDGs), particularly SDGs 1, 2, 6, 12 and 14, as well as 13, which directly relates to reducing the impact of climate change.
Source: United Nations
In pursuit of these goals, the FAO has found multiple applications for artificial intelligence across various fields.
Firstly, the Hand-in-Hand Geospatial Platform is the enabling tool for the FAO Hand-in-Hand (HiH) Initiative; an evidence-based, country-led and country-owned initiative to accelerate the SDGs 1 and 2. It uses sophisticated tools like advanced geo-spatial modelling and analytics to identify opportunities to raise the incomes and reduce the inequities and vulnerabilities of rural populations, who constitute the vast majority of the world's poor. The platform brings together over 20 technical units from multiple domains across FAO, from Animal Health to Trade and Markets, and integrating data from across FAO on Soil, Land, Water, Climate, Fisheries, Livestock, Crops, Forestry, Trade, Social and Economics, among others. Since the launch of the HiH Geospatial Platform, over 65 countries and institutions have participated in workshops to learn how leveraging data and technology can contribute to digital agriculture transformation and rural development.[iii]
The Food and Agriculture Organization's (FAO) WaPOR site and the Agriculture Stress Index System are two programmes that use AI to improve food security and agriculture sustainability (ASIS). Both systems keep track of how much water is used in agriculture. The WaPOR portal of the FAO, monitors water in the Near East and Africa via open-source software that collects enormous volumes of data. Simultaneously, the AI analyses the data to calculate the most efficient water consumption for various crops and geographies, and then uploads the results in real time.[iv] ASIS dissects the data from a global perspective to each country and region. This helps people to be proactive in their drought preparedness by optimizing water consumption and bolstering logistics for transporting aid to areas experiencing food shortages, preventing starvation.[v] Water Aid have made clear their opinion on the criticality of water security for protecting employees and local populations, and operational and financial stability for enterprises with supply chains in water-stressed and vulnerable nations. The burden of COVID-19 on workforce health has revealed underlying threats to business continuity which climate change is worsening by rapidly growing water stress.[vi]
Only the infancy stage for an evolving tool which could even the odds in the climate crisis
The work undertaken within the FAO is complemented by Microsoft’s planetary computer, developed as part of its "AI for Earth" programme. Microsoft, as one of the world’s most recognisable and forward-thinking brands, demonstrates the role of enterprise in AI advancement alongside institutions such as the FAO. It was first introduced by the company's chief environmental officer Lucas Joppa in 2019 and is intended to function as a geospatial search engine to speed up climate decision-making and "avert environmental disaster." It does so by combining data from NASA, NOAA, and the European Space Agency, as well as data obtained through a collaboration between the UK Met Office, the Chinese Meteorological Administration and the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Atmospheric Physics.[vii]
However, cutting-edge data sets will not be enough. Microsoft’s President Brad Smith wrote in a post in 2020 that the planetary computer requires active input from crowdsourced networks that receive funding from his company, such as iNaturalist, a mobile app platform for amateur ecologists to upload and share biodiversity data that has become obtainable in 37 languages. He added that the "planetary computer" is "very difficult," and that "we cannot build it alone" without "the work and demands of our grantees.” AI needs committed and motivated communities to make a difference in at-risk ecosystems.[viii] Increasingly, collaboration is enabling AI to become a key tool in addressing the existential global challenges that societies across the world are facing.
*Zero Carbon Academy (www.zerocarbonacademy.com) aims to become the ‘go-to’ resource for the learning, information and community that individuals need to assess, plan, execute and monitor their organisation's migration towards a Zero Carbon footprint.
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