Florida Climate Smart Ag Leaders Aim to Develop AI Tool to Quantify Ecosystem Services

June 9, 2022

Collaboration can often prove to be the most effective way of reaching a goal. It involves a wider range of expertise, offers a quicker process and is more efficient. It’s particularly rewarding when it leads to solutions to longtime problems.

Collaboration is underscored in Florida, where the SfL’s climate smart agriculture work group (FLCSA), which is made up of growers, livestock operators, timber industry leaders, and others from the ag sector, has joined up with the University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Science (UF/IFAS). This partnership is working to develop a monitoring network and a prototype artificial intelligence (AI) tool to quantify ecosystem services.

The research underscores the fact that farmers deliver much more than food, fuel and fiber. Ecosystem services are benefits delivered by land and water from agricultural and natural systems. The provide many of the basic functions that make life possible for us. For example, crop growth can be better tailored to sequester climate-altering carbon, plants can clean the air and filter water, bacteria decompose wastes, bees pollinate flowers, managed grazing lands provide habitat for wildlife and enhance biodiversity, and tree roots hold soil in place to prevent erosion. The services are interacting with each other and with management practices in complex ways.

In Florida, the aim is to investigate and develop a prototype tool that creates a “biodiversity map” using satellite imagery. The project, launched with a generous grant from SfL partner VoLo Foundation, looks to measure and quantify ecosystem services offered by agriculture that can enhance the ability of scientists and researchers to study and influence them.

The ambitious scope of the project is attributable to recent advances in sensor technologies and transmission of data. Expanded AI computing power make it possible to quantify intangible benefits such as carbon sequestration and other beneficial ecosystem services. By quantifying the benefits, incentives can be provided to growers to promote them. But it’s also important to note that the only way for a program offering payment for ecosystem services to be successful is if those services truly work for farmers, ranchers and foresters.

A measure of the project’s credibility and its potential benefits was the signing of a spending bill last week by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis that included a $2-million grant to support the AI initiative. The grant will enable FLCSA leaders, UF/IFAS researchers and students to significantly scale up their collection of ecosystem services data and boost their analysis work.

The project design calls for layering management practices and examining ecosystem-service deliverables using AI and computer modeling, creating AI-HARVEST: a Hub for Agricultural Reporting and Verification of Ecosystem Services through Sensing Technologies.

The project would not be limited to Florida. The aim is for it to ultimately serve as the working model for a national ecosystem service monitoring network. The sensors and AI analysis would give farmers across the nation the tools they need to produce efficiently. The project and its outgrowth will also give policy makers the data they need to incentivize what is essentially a national public good.

In the absence of a market mechanism to achieve the wider implementation, a national investment could build on the nascent network of data collection and AI analysis in Florida’s agricultural and ecological settings and establish a network that could measure the society-wide benefits from land management choices across the nation.

SfL looks with pride and appreciation at the FLCSA leaders and the UF/IAFS for their collaborative efforts to date. This innovative work not only enhances food production, water supply and materials for shelter, but includes carbon sequestration among the most critical of its ecosystem services, given its role in combatting climate change. Congratulations to everyone who have worked tirelessly to bring this technology forward. This is yet another example of a blossoming 21st century agricultural renaissance and of farmers and ranchers leading by doing!

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