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AI entomology spots fall armyworm in India

Heard of the fall armyworm? A voracious pest native to the Americas, it’s been slowly making its way around the world, leaving crop devastation in its wake.

Described as a ‘crop-chomping caterpillar’, it reached Africa two years ago, where it’s been labelled as a humanitarian crisis for the havoc it’s wreaked on smallholder crops. With agriculture and aid agencies across the world trying to prevent its further spread, experts were disappointed when in August scientists announced it had reached India.

In fact, scientists’ role was only to confirm the findings of a machine-learning app; the initial identification came after worried Indian farmers began uploading pictures of an unidentified pest to smartphones running a new app from an Israeli start-up with a medtech background.

Why is fall armyworm so feared? For a start, it has an appetite for 187 plant species, including maize, sorghum and soya beans. It’s this ability to decimate the world’s most important crops that has experts declaring Spodoptera frugiperda such a major threat to global food security.

In an effort to tackle its spread using technology, a Fall Armyworm Tech Prize was already underway. A collaboration between regional and international organisations, including government agencies, NGOs and commerce, the competition offered 20 start-ups the chance to win one of five prizes. Saillog, an Israeli firm dedicated to sustainable agriculture, was amongst them.

Its smartphone app Agrio uses artificial intelligence and machine-learning algorithms to diagnose hundreds of crop diseases, pests and nutrient deficiencies. Its algorithms were already being trained to recognise fall armyworm – so it simply became a matter of ‘right place, right time’ when Indian users of the app uploaded their pest images and Agrio made a successful identification.

Perhaps Agrio’s most valuable feature is its ‘crowdsourcing’ nature; when a pest or disease is identified, it sends rapid warning notifications to other farmers in the same region. Through mid-July, hundreds of farmers began receiving suggested preventative protocols already uploaded to the app as part of the Tech Prize process. Finally, on July 30, the Indian Council of Agriculture Research officially announced the presence of fall armyworm on maize in the state of Karnataka.

Is this the first instance of AI’s definitive benefit to agriculture? We think so – and as Saillog themselves say, it’s a remarkable depiction of the times in which we live, and the capabilities – clearly valuable – of AI.

“We are witnessing an intersection of advances in technology and the potential for efficacious containment of outbreaks,” says Dr. Nessi Benishti, CEO and founder of Saillog.

“Prevention and early detection are critical factors in containing their spread. Image-based artificial intelligent systems like Agrio are important tools in agriculture, now that information is so easily accessible and communication between individuals so simple.”

Saillog’s a great example of the companies and agtech pioneers who are not in a position to retain services from Agro Mavens, but whom we try to support nonetheless in various ways – for example, through our technical journalism services; we’re currently working to sell-in an article about Agrio’s success to a suitable publication.

If you’ve a similar story you think should reach a wider audience, do get in touch. We’d love to see what we can do to help.



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