Could AI regulation hamper the next agricultural revolution? 

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Artificial intelligence (AI) is poised to revolutionize the agricultural industry, along with other sectors of the economy. Already, AI has reduced agricultural labor costs through automation, made pest detection easier and more accurate, and provided farmers with valuable data to make operations more efficient. Yet, the government’s history of heavy interference in farming, including in technologies like improved tractors and better crops, could discourage future AI innovation by raising perceived risks. The current Farm Bill is advancing through the House, and it holds the potential to either encourage innovation or discourage it.    

The Farm Bill is a semi-regular (generally renewed every five years) omnibus law that tries to address an array of current agricultural and food policy issues. The proposed version won’t be the final bill, but it provides insights into what the final bill may look like. Hidden away in the bill’s rural development portion, it instructs the Secretary of Agriculture to:     

[D]evelop voluntary, consensus-based, private sector-led interconnectivity standards, guidelines, and best practices for precision agriculture that will promote economies of scale and ease the burden of the adoption of precision agriculture.   

What are interconnectivity standards? The answer can be found in this section’s origin. It traces back to the Promoting Precision Agriculture Act of 2023, which was introduced in the House as H.R. 1697 and in the Senate as S. 734. When discussing the Senate bill, Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA), a co-sponsor of the bill, talked about how different “technologies should work seamlessly together,” while fellow co-sponsor Sen. John Thune (R-SD) discussed the abundance of data available and how it must be more accessible. This information, when paired with a recent Government Accountability Office report on precision agriculture, makes it clear such standards would focus on the sharing of data and information between different devices, regardless of who made them. 

Precision agriculture technology is defined as any “technology that directly contributes to a reduction in, or improved efficiency of, the use of crop or livestock production inputs.” All three innovations mentioned before – automation, improved pest detection, and extra data –directly or indirectly reduce input usage, as will many future AI innovations. Thus, any standards imposed on precision agriculture technology will also regulate many AI applications.    

  On the surface, these standards are nonbinding, something the government goes out of its way to stress. If true, they could mirror past efforts in areas like internet privacy and be both consumer- and business friendly while also preventing established business from suppressing future competitors. They would also align with the proactionary principle, enabling permissionless innovation and boosting human prosperity more than any form of preemptive regulation would. But this begs the question: if all of this is such a good idea, why does the government need to encourage it?  

  It is also possible that these standards will serve as a form of regulatory dark matter, enabling the government to regulate with minimal scrutiny from the public. If industry begins to take these voluntary standards as law (as has happened before), the American public will be worse off. The consequences will include greater costs for businesses and consumers, less innovation, and potentially less productivity growth as producers avoid well-integrated systems in favor of mixing and matching. One day, these voluntary standards could even be codified into mandatory regulations, cementing their regulatory effects and further stifling innovation.    

Overall, the Farm Bill seemingly proposes standards that would be more conducive to innovation and flourishing than the usual, heavy-handed government regulation. Yet, it is likely that these benefits will be lost due to the lack of guarantee that the proposed regulations would be voluntary and that they wouldn’t later be used against those who chose to make them. If we’re not careful, we could miss out on a world where we have abundant access to healthy foods at low costs.