Enhancing Sustainability in Resource-Limited Environments: Government, Culture, and AI

By on July 10th, 2024 in Articles, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Case Studies, Commentary, Environment, Ethics, Health & Medical, Human Impacts, Magazine Articles, Social Implications of Technology, Societal Impact

Spain’s Comunitat Valenciana (Valencian Community) (Figure 1) has a rich agricultural history, with long traditions of resilience and innovation. This tradition, along with the community’s deep ethic of respect for the land, remains at the core of the region’s approach to climate change and sustainability.

While low rainfall has historically been a challenge for agriculture in the Valencian region, increased temperatures and reduced rainfall due to climate change have exacerbated the issue.

Land-Use Shifts: A study covering the province of Castelló in the Valencia region over 50 years showed a substantial reduction in agricultural land use, with a corresponding increase in abandoned agricultural land and the establishment of dense forest areas. This shift indicates a move away from traditional agriculture due to various factors, including climate change [1]

Rising Temperatures and Droughts: Spain, particularly its Mediterranean region, has experienced increased temperatures and reduced rainfall. The Mediterranean region of Spain has warmed about 1.5°C since the Industrial Revolution, which is more than the global average. This warming is expected to continue, with projections of significant temperature increases in the coming decades. These rising temperatures and a trend toward reduced rainfall may lead to desertification, adversely affecting agriculture.

Climate issues also lead to increased urgency in addressing risks like wildfires, especially in regions like Castellon, in the Northern part of the Valencian Community, where small agricultural towns are particularly vulnerable due to increasing biomass and depopulation [2]

Depopulation in Rural Areas: Small rural towns in the Valencian region face significant economic challenges. A primary issue is related to rural depopulation, which results in financial hardships in traditional agricultural communities. Other concerns include preventing and detecting pests, analyzing production, and planning for future scenarios. These tasks are becoming crucial for dealing with the economic impacts that agriculture is currently facing. Moreover, unusual weather patterns, such as warm weather during Christmas or unexpected spring-like weeks in mid-January, complicate the challenges. Droughts and irregular climatic conditions further exacerbate the economic strain on agriculture, increasing the need for innovative approaches and effective resource management strategies.

A powerful resource for addressing these complex challenges in the Valencia region is a strong tradition of farming cooperatives. The key will be combining such local cooperative resources with technological advancements—in particular, the potential use of artificial intelligence (AI). The aim is to leverage technology and cooperative traditions to revitalize and create sustainable and economically viable rural communities in the Valencian region.

The heightened challenge has necessitated more innovative and sustainable water management practices.

Valencian FVMP and UN SDGs

To meet economic and environmental challenges related to climate change, rural depopulation, and more, the agricultural community in the Valencia region is committed to sustainable agriculture. The Valencian Federation of Municipalities and Provinces (FVMP), a nonprofit association that promotes local autonomy and interests, has recognized a number of United Nations sustainable development goals (SDGs) as crucial [3] for the sustainable development of the Valencian agricultural sector. These include SDG 2 (end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture); SDG 8 (promote sustained, inclusive, and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all); and SDG 13 (take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts) [4]

In practice, and aligning with SDG 13’s climate objectives, the VisualNACert model [5] has improved irrigation practices in the region, with the goal of increasing irrigation efficiency, sustainability, and productivity. Water usage has been significantly reduced [6] (Figure 2). In addition, organic agriculture, revitalized by a younger generation that blends traditional methods with modern approaches, has become a significant revenue generator, contributing substantially to the regional economy [7], [8], [9]. In 2021, agro-food cooperatives in Valencia collectively generated over 2.228 billion euros in revenue [10], showing robust growth [11], [12], [13], [14] of organic agriculture compared to traditional farming [15] and aligning with SDG 8, to promote sustainable economic growth as well as SDG 2, to achieve food security and promote sustainable agriculture.

Figure 2. VisualNACert weather station amidst a young onion crop. Precision agriculture technology is being used for optimal crop irrigation and weather monitoring.


Harnessing AI for SDGs

SDG 2: End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture.

At the September 2023 ICSD at Columbia University, New York, NY, Roig [3] reported on a study, presented on behalf of the FVMP, focused on addressing depopulation and agricultural challenges in Comunitat Valenciana. The study focuses on optimizing food production to combat global hunger. Leveraging the power of AI can bring transformative change to the agricultural sector for these purposes. By the target year of 2030, FVMP believes AI has the potential to:

  1. Double agricultural productivity [22]: Enhanced predictive algorithms can analyze soil health, weather patterns, and crop requirements to provide farmers with actionable insights. This advance leads to increased yields and promotes sustainable farming practices.
  2. Boost the Incomes of Small-Scale Food Producers [23]: FVMP seeks to harness AI to emphasize the empowerment of marginalized groups such as women, indigenous peoples, family farmers, pastoralists, and fishers. By ensuring that these producers have secure and equal access to essential resources like land, inputs, and knowledge, members of these groups can experience increases in their income levels. Additionally, AI can help them tap into financial services, discover new markets, and explore value addition possibilities and nonfarm employment opportunities.


SDG 8: Promote sustained, inclusive, and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all.

  1. Technological upgrades and innovation: Embracing AI means introducing a new age of technical sophistication in farming (Figure 3). This update is not limited to growing crops but extends to postharvest practices, storage, transportation, and market analysis.
  2. Promotion of high-value-added and labor-intensive sectors: With AI-driven insights, farmers can be guided toward crops and practices that add higher value to the market and create employment opportunities, benefiting the economy.

Figure 3.VisualNACert weather station being used inside a greenhouse, allowing integration of innovative agriculture solutions to monitor and adapt to indoor farming conditions


The application of AI in agriculture has a domino effect, reaching sectors beyond production:

  1. Education and awareness: By mapping and analyzing the effects of changing climatic patterns on agriculture, AI provides data used for educational purposes. This education ensures that farmers and the larger community are well-informed about the impacts of climate change.
  2. Enhanced human and institutional capacity: As institutions harness AI for climate analysis, there is concurrent growth in their capacity to make informed decisions. Institutions can better plan mitigation strategies, adapt to changing scenarios, and reduce the negative impacts of climate change.

Key to addressing these complex challenges in the Valencia region will be combining local cooperative resources with technological advancements, in particular, artificial intelligence (AI).

Leveraging the Power of AI and Open Data

The synergy of AI and agricultural practices is guided by the network of local governments to align with specific SDGs and holds possibilities of helping agriculture to thrive and economies to prosper while protecting the planet. Our goal is to work toward a world where we are eradicating hunger, where economies flourish sustainably, and where our environment is safer for future generations.

We believe that the synergy between community-guided AI and open data heralds a new agricultural era. Open data refers to publicly accessible data that anyone can use to improve agricultural decision-making. This data type is crucial for agriculture, as it allows farmers, researchers, and decision-makers to access valuable information like weather patterns, soil conditions, and crop performance. Combining open data with AI technologies forms a foundation for revolutionizing agricultural practices and production. It enables precise and informed decision-making, which is essential for meeting market demand and adapting to environmental changes. The goal of such approaches is to promote and ensure inclusivity in the AI-driven evolution of agriculture, making sure that both large corporations and small farms can benefit from these technological advancements.

The use of AI combined with open data offers access to solutions to agriculture needs, ranging from measurement and provision of precise water usage, to determining accurate harvest times. “Digi Mapa,” backed by the European Union’s Next GenerationEU funds, is an innovative guide that leads farmers to essential digitalization resources [24]

However, bridging the gap between proficiency and actual engagement is crucial. We must ensure that individuals and entities in the agricultural sector, particularly in rural areas, are able to access digital technologies and also that they possess the necessary skills and motivation to use these tools effectively. Meeting this challenge involves training, education, and ongoing support to facilitate the transition to more digitized, efficient farming methods (Figure 4).

Figure 4.Cooperativa de Viver technician calibrates advanced irrigation technology as part of the HANDYWATER project, which aims to implement sustainable water management practices in agriculture.


Opportunities and Challenges

Open data and AI are twin pillars, potentially fostering dramatic changes in agriculture.

But while these technologies offer precise decision-making capabilities, from selecting crops to anticipating market demands, challenges persist. There is a need to set up a collaborative, cooperative system emphasizing synergy. Ensuring that smaller farms are not sidelined from the AI-driven evolution is paramount. The journey must be inclusive, where every entity benefits from technological advancements, from massive corporations to the smallest farms.

Examples of coordinated success provide inspiration for this inclusive path, including VisualNACert’s irrigation strategy [5], [25], and the ELLIOT CLOUD-led innovative infrastructure management [26], focusing on data-driven software solutions for water and energy management.

In the HANDYWATER project, Cooperativa de Viver [27] collaborates on field trials to advance practical irrigation solutions in agriculture (Figure 5). This project, coordinated by the Valencian Institute of Agricultural Research (IVIA) [28], includes demonstrative plots for olive and citrus crops, employing precision irrigation technologies like soil moisture sensors and remote-sensing tools. The aim is to enhance water use efficiency and crop productivity, demonstrating the project’s commitment to practical, cost-effective innovations for small-scale producers (Figure 6).

Figure 5.Farmers and technicians from Cooperativa de Viver gather around an installation site to observe a demonstration of the HANDYWATER system, designed to optimize irrigation through precise water control.

Figure 6.Cooperativa de Vivers onsite training: A field technician from Cooperativa de Viver provides on-site training to local farmers, utilizing the HANDYWATER system.

Researchers such as Oliver [29], Reina [30], and Mayans [31] have also significantly influenced this trajectory, marrying the spheres of AI, agriculture, and ethical considerations. Oliver’s work demonstrates how ethically guided AI can be beneficial, particularly in aligning technology with societal good; Reina, recognized by Big Data Magazine as the most influential woman in AI in Spain in 2023, has provided essential connections for AI in agriculture, and Monsalve has shown a lifelong commitment to enhancing small rural communities through ecological agriculture.

Uplifting Underresourced Municipalities

Our presentation at the ICSD 2023 was not just about advancements but deeply rooted in the essence of Valencian agriculture. Other initiatives in Valencia such as Rafelbunyol’s [32] “Municipal Observatory of SDG Indicators” Project and Onda’s Smart City program [33] exemplify the potential of data-driven innovations. The ECOFIRA event at Feria Valencia, “International Fair of Environmental Solutions and Energies” [34] is another example of our commitment in Valencia to the sustainable uplifting of under-resourced municipalities.

As we progress, we focus on making the gathered knowledge accessible, especially to limited-resource municipalities and agriculture cooperatives. We can chart a sustainable future for Comunitat Valenciana through collaborative endeavors and by setting global and regional benchmarks. Our representation at the ICSD was both a motivational and enlightening experience. With an eye on ICSD 2024, our objective is to create a sustainable blueprint, continually enhancing the prosperity of our region.

The Agricultural Legacy of Comunitat Valenciana is at an exciting crossroads. On the one hand, we have traditions dating back centuries; on the other hand, we are on the cusp of a technological revolution. By addressing the SDGs directly and leveraging AI and open data, we are crafting a sustainable future that serves as a beacon for regions worldwide. As we move forward, we remain committed to empowering our communities, respecting our lands, and nurturing the next generation. Our journey is not just about the soil and crops; it is a testament to the human spirit, collaboration, and innovation.


This article is based on a presentation at the International Conference on Sustainable Development on September 19, 2023, at Columbia University, New York, NY, USA.

Author Information

Alex Roig Albelda leads the promotion of the UN’s SDGs across the Valencian Community through the Federation of Valencian Municipalities and Provinces, 46001 Valencia, Spain, working to bridge the knowledge gap in adopting these crucial objectives. He is also an advocate for sustainable development with a background that combines technology, human rights, and rural advocacy. Having spent a decade in San Francisco, he developed a keen interest in AI and technological innovations. As the president of the Vive La Canal tourist association and proprietor of Lago de Anna—Casa Rural, he invested in the prosperity of rural areas. In his quest to integrate global sustainability policies, he dedicates his career to helping regions navigate sustainable change, ensuring communities face a brighter, and technology-forward future. Email: aroig@fvmp.org.


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