Is the future of farming full of robots a nightmare or a utopia?

Imagine this: Gas-powered autonomous robots sweep across acres of homogeneous farmland under a black sky that smells of pollution. All trees were cut down and no animals in sight. Pesticides are sprayed in excess because humans no longer tend to the fields. The machines do their job—producing massive amounts of food to feed our growing population—but it’s not without an environmental cost.

Or imagine another future: tiny robots grow mosaic pieces of many different crops, working around trees, streams and wildlife in the landscape. They are powered by renewable energy sources, such as the sun, wind or perhaps water. Agrochemicals are becoming a thing of the past, because robots help the ecosystem stay in harmony, so pests and weeds are kept out. It is a futuristic Garden of Eden, full of blue skies, green pastures and fresh air.

Where do you want your food to come from?

These are the two futures imagined by Thomas Dom, 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 thought article in Trends in ecology and evolution which developed dual visions of an ecological utopia or dystopia in an attempt to discuss 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 must change,” says Daum, who is concerned that the devastating effects agricultural technology has on the environment are not getting enough attention. The climate change mitigation strategies outlined in the Paris Agreement cannot be met without changing the way food is grown. “Even if you change all the other sectors, if you don’t change agriculture, we will lose those goals,” he says.

Even in a world without massive agricultural robots, large-scale agricultural practices are already changing the environment. “Agriculture itself is an intentional shaping of the environment of a particular place,” says Emily Raisman, a geographer of human ecology at the University of Buffalo. We remove wildlife, degrade the soil, clear the land for better growing food, as well as spray chemicals to ward off pests and diseases.

When we add current farm technologies into the mix, well, it only gets worse. Machines such as tractors, combine harvesters, and crop monitoring drones generally require controlled environments to operate efficiently, so unforeseen factors should be eliminated as much as possible in industrial farming. This can mean year after year of monoculture in perfectly flat fields with little difference in growth, everything ripening at the same time, and frequent use of herbicides, pesticides and fungicides to ensure uniformity. Standardization is a result of our need to mechanize agriculture, says University of Rhode Island sustainable food systems scientist Patrick Burr. “This is farming, the agro-ecosystem, and the entire farming process that is being shaped to meet the needs of the machine,” he says.

The ecological consistency required for industrial agriculture has largely contributed to the loss of biodiversity, the diversity of plant and animal life needed to maintain the balance of ecosystems. Biodiversity protects water quality, moderates global temperatures by sequestering carbon in the soil (rather than in the air), and ensures the presence of insects to pollinate crops and natural predators to reduce the presence of pests. “Machines dramatically reduce the diversity of insect life, microbial life, plants and animals,” Burr says, because many of them need to be eliminated in order to function optimally.

But why are we? Need machines for food production? It is an economic issue. To keep up with the ever-increasing demands of a growing population, agriculture requires more and more labour. Food is also much cheaper than it used to be, putting pressure on farmers to produce higher returns at lower profits. As a result, if field workers are making less money and leaving the industry for better paid options, farmers may increasingly turn to mechanization to fill the gap.

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