Cornell researchers will use artificial intelligence to develop next generation food systems

Tomatoes growing on vines

Cornell researchers are part of a multi-university team awarded $20 million by the National Science Foundation to establish an institute focused on enabling next-generation food systems through the integration of artificial intelligence technologies.

The AI Institute for Next Generation Food Systems, established in partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, aims to meet growing food supply demands by using AI and bioinformatics to increase efficiencies across the entire food production system, from growing crops through consumption. 

Qing Zhao, the Joseph C. Ford Professor of Engineering, is leading the Cornell team, with co-principal investigators Jayadev Acharya, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering; Martin Wiedmann, professor in the Department of Food Science; and Renata Ivanek, associate professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine.

“While we have witnessed great leaps in AI innovations in recent years, food systems present unique challenges in the application and adoption of AI,” said Zhao. “Food systems are highly diverse, and data collection can be costly and subject to long delays due to the innate growth cycle of crops.”

“More importantly, due to the primary tie between human and food, the adoption of AI solutions in food systems needs to be particularly mindful of ethical and socioeconomic consequences in terms of safety, fairness and equality, and impact on farm labor,” Zhao explained. “This research institute will serve as a national nexus for collaborative efforts to address these unique challenges.”

The project will help food producers by allowing them to optimize plant traits for yield, crop quality and disease resistance through advances in molecular breeding. The researchers also hope to minimize resource consumption and waste by developing agriculture-specific AI applications, sensing platforms and robotics. Consumers will benefit from enhancements to food safety and new tools which could provide real-time meal evaluations to guide personal health decisions.

The award is part of a larger investment announced last month which will grant a total of $140 million to fund seven complementary AI research institutes across the nation. These new institutes will accelerate AI research that holds the potential for further economic impact and improvements in quality of life in a range of fields.

“AI will serve as both the enabling technology and the connective tissue that brings together these elements and catalyzes this transformation to a safer, fairer and more efficient food system for the next generation,” said Ilias Tagkopoulos, professor in the UC Davis Department of Computer Science and Genome Center, and director of the new institute. 

The overall mission of the center is to optimize global food production, quality and security. In addition to the scientific and technical objectives, the institute’s charter includes a major emphasis on inclusive education and outreach approaches to build a diverse, next-generation workforce. 

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