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Automated farming: Good news for food security, bad news for job security

A robot picks a ripe strawberry.

Japan's Utsunomiya University displays a strawberry harvesting robot picking a ripe strawberry. The robot can gather a piece of fruit and sort by size automatically.

Around the world, but especially in the developing world, food and farming systems continue to rely on 20th-century technology. But this is changing. The same information technologies that brought us the Internet and transformations in medicine are now revolutionizing farming. It’s a new era for agriculture and it’s taking off in at least two distinct areas.

On the farm, technology is changing the way farmers manage farmland and farm animals — such as the use of satellite driven geo-positioning systems and sensors that detect nutrients and water in soil. This technology is enabling tractors, harvesters and planters to make decisions about what to plant, when to fertilize and how much to irrigate. As this technology progresses, equipment will ultimately be able to tailor decisions on a metre-by-metre basis. 

Robots already do much of the harvesting of lettuce and tomatoes in our greenhouses. And it’s even becoming feasible to place fitness trackers on farm animals to monitor their health and welfare. The dairy industry has been at the vanguard of this, where robotic milking and computer-controlled feeding equipment allow for the careful management of individual animals within a herd.

A similar tech revolution is happening with the genetics of the plants we grow and the animals we raise. Genomic tools are on the cusp of allowing scientists to rapidly and inexpensively evaluate the genetic code of individual plants and animals. This makes it much easier to identify individual plants and animals that are particularly robust or productive.

This knowledge, in combination with traditional breeding, can accelerate how quickly we improve the genetic potential of our crops and livestock. Scientists at U.K. research institute the John Innes Centre, for example, are attempting to create a strain of barley that would make its own ammonium fertilizer from nitrogen in the soil, something which could save farmers the cost of artificial fertilizers.

Taken together, both farm and genome-scale technologies are boosting the efficiency of modern farming, which is increasingly important to feed a growing population set to reach almost nine billion by 2050. But this is just the beginning. 

Many experts are looking forward to a future where the Internet of Things (where physical objects such as vehicles, buildings and devices are connected to collect and exchange data) is applied to food and farming to create an Internet of Living Things. In this future, advanced sensors embedded in fields, waterways, irrigation systems and tractors will combine with machine-learning systems, genome-identifying devices and data dashboards to give rise to a generation of smart farming technology that will have the capacity to sense and respond to its environment in a way that maximizes production while minimizing negative impact.

For the HIV-positive farmer supporting her family on just one hectare in rural Malawi, satellite-driven tractors and high productivity beef germplasm are about as useful as a moondust

However, we have to be aware that there are potential problems as well. In many of the poorer parts of the world, sophisticated agricultural technologies are less important than education, health care, access to capital, sound governance and basic infrastructure. And while many technologies do help (e.g. the advent of cell networks and smartphones), for the HIV-positive farmer supporting her family on just one hectare in rural Malawi, satellite-driven tractors and high productivity beef germplasm are about as useful as a moondust.

Furthermore, many of these technologies require very little human labour. For example, Japanese company Spread has recently announced that robots will carry out all but one of the tasks required to grow tens of thousands of lettuces each day in its indoor automated farm.

For countries in the industrial world, this growing automation probably means the continued decline of rural life. The issue of labour is even more important for the economies of the global south, where there are fewer urban job opportunities. In those countries, technologies that take labour out of the fields may undermine efforts to reduce poverty and enhance development.

So we have to be aware that with every technological revolution, there may be winners and losers.  Similar to the fear that Uber and Google cars will make taxi drivers obsolete, will the same thing happen to farmers? In the brave new world of satellite-driven tractors and robotic milking parlours, where will rural communities and cultures fit? And for countries still dependent on agricultural labour, what will people do to survive?

The answers to these questions are not simple to find but by trying to find answers, we will be in a better position to develop strategies to help people and economies transition to the brave new world of robotic farming. 

Evan Fraser is Canada research chair and professor of geography at University of Guelph. Sylvain Charlebois is professor of food distribution and policy at the University of Guelph.

A version of this piece appeared in The Guardian.

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