Inside Quantum Technology’s “Inside Scoop:” Quantum and the Agricultural Industry
With concerns about food shortages and world hunger, many in the agricultural industry are looking to leverage next-generation technology, such as quantum computing, to help solve these issues. Because agriculture has used technology in the past, from cases of automotive machines like tractors to computer simulations of crop yields, it may not be that much of a stretch to adopt quantum computing in the future.
Why Quantum Computing is Perfect for Agriculture
Plants, like our own bodies, are very complicated. They need specific amounts of water, nutrients, sunlight, and the right temperature in order to properly grow. Besides these factors, farms also have to take into account external variables, from weather forecasts to pesticide usage to adding fertilizer. With these many different parameters occurring simultaneously, regular computer simulations have difficulty keeping up with everything. As quantum computing promises faster and more optimized problem-solving, it may be the perfect tool for improving farming efficiency and crop yields. Farmers can use quantum computing algorithms to analyze large amounts of data about soil composition, weather patterns, and other factors to determine the optimal conditions for growing crops. This can help farmers make more informed decisions about planting, fertilizing, and harvesting, which can ultimately lead to higher yields and better profits.
As researchers around the world are looking at ways to boost crop yields, as a solution for world hunger, quantum computing could offer some valuable assistance. “One of the hardest things when it comes to the question of increasing agricultural productivity is modeling our complex and ever-changing climate,” explained Rachel Lee, a Knowledge Society scholar who is interested in technological solutions to world hunger. “Things like rain patterns, sunlight hours, and temperature directly correlate with yields. So, if we can model these patterns, prepare for extreme weather events, and create resilient farming systems, we can quite easily increase yields.”
Another potential application of quantum computing in the agricultural industry is the development of new crop varieties. Traditional breeding methods can take many years to produce new varieties with desirable traits such as disease resistance, drought tolerance, and increased yield. According to a 2023 AZOQuantum article, it takes an average of five to seven years to see a new cross-breed successfully produce fruit. However, with the help of quantum computing, scientists can analyze the genetic makeup of crops much more quickly and accurately. This can help them identify genes associated with desirable traits and create new varieties through gene editing or other techniques. Quantum computing is already being applied to DNA and other proteins in the healthcare and drug discovery industries, so a transition from these fields to the agricultural industry would be expected to be somewhat easy.
Understanding the genetics of crop development can also help in reducing pesticide usage and possibly even crop disease. “Pests destroy 20% of global crop yields, causing an economic loss of $200 billion dollars,” Lee added. “If there was a way to effectively predict the movement of these pests, we could produce 20% more food. We have tried using drones to model nature, and are currently integrating AI and ML algorithms to effectively model these conditions. But quantum computing can take agricultural modeling to a completely new level, and unlock extremely precise and accurate prediction and modeling capabilities to decrease losses and increase yields in global agriculture.”
Challenges in Combining Quantum and the Agricultural Industry
While quantum computing may offer some significant benefits, it does also come with costs. According to Dr. Julia Wright, an Associate Professor in the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience at Coventry University, “In principle, in sustainable farming, the objective is both to heal and to enhance the health of the components of the system—that is the naturally farmed environment, the humans involved, and the food that is produced. If quantum computing can be of benefit then that’s great, but we don’t seek to find a use for a technology per se, because that’s not our goal. Further, one of the challenges of food production is that technologies are replacing human and natural processes to the degree that we lose what it is to be human – depending on what one believes we are here for in the first place. This becomes an existential and ethical question.” As farmers are often grandfathered into the agricultural industry, they have a strong emotional tie to their farms, one that might be threatened by this new technology. “Sustainable farmers—depending on their worldviews—may not wish to implement certain technologies because they don’t believe that the way is to replace human endeavor with machines,” added Wright. Should quantum computing become more widely adopted by the agricultural industry, societal costs such as this need to be taken into account in order to ensure that the technology is used in an ethical manner.
Even with these challenges, some individuals and organizations are pushing forward, including Iowa Congressman Randy Feenstra, who spoke in December 2022 to Radio Iowa about his goals to use quantum computing to help Iowa’s agricultural industry. “I don’t want agriculture left behind when we start talking about the efficiency and effectiveness of quantum computing,” Feenstra stated in the interview. “…The next generation, this is what it’s all about, is how we can be more efficient, more effective in what we can do on the farm and we can do that with quantum technology.”
Kenna Hughes-Castleberry is a staff writer at Inside Quantum Technology and the Science Communicator at JILA (a partnership between the University of Colorado Boulder and NIST). Her writing beats include deep tech, the metaverse, and quantum technology.