Is the future of robot-filled agriculture a nightmare or a utopia?


Picture this: colossal, Autonomous gasoline-powered robots bulldozed hectares of homogeneous farmland under a blackened sky that reeked of pollution. The trees have all been felled and there are no animals in sight. Pesticides are sprayed in excess because humans no longer tend to the fields. Machines do their job – producing massive amounts of food to feed our growing population – but it comes at a cost to the environment.

Or envision a different future: Smaller robots cultivate mosaic plots of many different cultures, working around the trees, streams, and wildlife of the natural landscape. They are powered by renewable energy sources, like the sun, wind or maybe water. Agrochemicals are a thing of the past because robots help the ecosystem stay in harmony, so pests and super-weeds are kept at bay. It’s a futuristic Garden of Eden, with blue skies, green pastures and clean air.

What world would you like your food to come from?

These are the two futures envisioned by Thomas Daum, an agricultural economist at the University of Hohenheim, who works on food security and sustainable agriculture in places like Uganda and Bangladesh. In July, he published a piece of thought in Trends in ecology and evolution which featured twin visions of an ecological utopia or dystopia with the aim of discussing how the technological revolution in agriculture – also known as Agriculture 4.0 – could shape our future.

Courtesy of Natalis Lorenz
Courtesy of Natalis Lorenz

“Agriculture today has to change,” says Daum, who fears that the disruptive effects of agricultural technology on the environment are not getting enough attention. Climate change mitigation strategies described in the Paris Agreement cannot be achieved without transforming the way we grow food. “Even if you change all the other sectors,” he says, “if you don’t change agriculture, we will still miss those targets.

Even in a world without massive agricultural robots, large-scale farming practices are already changing the environment. “Agriculture is inherently an intentional shaping of the ecology of a particular place,” explains Emily Reisman, human environment geographer at the University of Buffalo. We are removing wildlife, degrading the soil, and clearing the land to better grow food, as well as spray chemicals to ward off pests and disease.

When we add existing agricultural technologies to this mix, well, it gets worse. Machines such as tractors, harvesters, and crop monitoring drones generally require controlled environments to operate efficiently, so unpredictable factors should be eliminated as much as possible in industrialized agriculture. This can mean year after year of monoculture on perfectly flat fields with little variation in growth, all ripening at the same time and frequent application of herbicides, pesticides and fungicides to ensure uniformity. Standardization is the result of our need to mechanize agriculture, says Patrick Baur, agroecologist at the University of Rhode Island. “It’s agriculture and the agro-ecosystem and the whole cultivation process being shaped to meet the needs of the machine,” he says.

The environmental coherence necessary for industrialized agriculture has largely contributed to a loss of biodiversity, of the variety of plant and animal life necessary to maintain the balance of ecosystems. Biodiversity protects water quality, moderates global temperatures by sequestering carbon in the soil (rather than the air), and ensures that there are insects to pollinate crops and natural predators to decrease occurrence pests. “The machines dramatically reduce the diversity of insect life, microbial life, flora and fauna,” Baur explains, because much of it needs to be cleaned for them to function optimally.

But why do we need machines to produce food? It is a question of economy. To cope with the ever increasing demands of a growing population, agriculture requires more and more labor. Food is also much cheaper than it was in the past, forcing farmers to produce higher yields for less profit. As a result, if farm workers earn less money and leave the industry for better-paying options, farmers may increasingly turn to mechanization to fill the void.



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