Robots carry out many agricultural tasks, and the future of farming is likely going to rely even more heavily upon robots, whether this future is harmonious or destructive lies in a fragile balance yet to be decided.
Farm Robots. Image Credit: Natalis Lorenz
Let’s begin preparing for the future of farm robots now
From automatic milking of cows to weeding and fruit picking, robots already replace many demanding tasks on farms. Taking it one step further, farm robots have now become a very likely possibility. So-called ‘robot farms’ would have limited human supervision, and different fleets of robots would take over all necessary tasks, similar to modern robot-based factories.
Such a depiction of farms is no longer science fiction, with preliminary tests already being conducted. As the future is already here, agricultural economist, Thomas Daum, argues that robot farms could become either a harmonious utopia or a harmful dystopia.
In a Science & Society article published in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution, Daum, a research fellow at the University of Hohenheim in Germany studying agricultural development strategies, discusses the future of robot farms. Specifically, whether they could be an enhancement of sorts to agriculture, by promoting nature while farming sustainably, or instead destructive agriculture based on monoculture and control.
Far from the distant utopia of Thomas Moore, the author of the present study argues that the idea that the future of robot farms could be either utopic or dystopic has yet to be decided but our choices leading up to it may favor one scenario over the other.
In the study, Daum describes the utopian scenario as a mosaic of rich fields, abundant streams, and wild flora and fauna. Fleets of small intelligent robots powered by sustainable energy move around an ecological utopia of fields occupied by birds, insects, and a variety of plants. The environment is rich in biodiversity; "It's like a Garden of Eden," describes Daum, adding that, "Small robots could help conserve biodiversity and combat climate change in ways that were not possible before."
However, the author states such a utopia would be too labor-intensive for conventional farming but could be carried out with robots working 24/7, and would be a great benefit for the environment in many ways, from enhancing biodiversity to enriching the soil. The surrounding biodiversity would also benefit, with healthier insect populations, aquatic systems, and soil bacteria thanks to targeted usage of biopesticides and laser-based weed removal. The yield of organic crops would increase in such a system, which in turn would significantly reduce the environmental footprint and greenhouse gas emissions.
Nevertheless, Daum describes the likelihood such a future could be imbalanced and instead have negative environmental ramifications. The author states this scenario is just as likely, with robot farms becoming bulldozing forces that work against the natural landscape. In this dystopia, robots would bulldoze habitats and replace diverse systems with monocultural practices that dominate wide-ranging areas of terrain.
This dystopia would also include isolated farms, communities, and wildlife, as humans are removed and agrochemicals, as well as pesticides, are used more extensively. This would allow companies to establish large monopolies to control the structure and production of entire landscapes with many harmful effects on the remaining environment.
Daum notes the future will most likely not be either a pure utopia or dystopia, but creating such extreme and contrasting scenarios, the author hopes to initiate a conversation on what he sees to be a significant crossroad in time. Such decisions are not made in one go but instead culminate from many small steps leading towards one type of scenario or the other.
"The utopia and dystopia are both possible from a technological perspective. But without the right guardrails on policy, we may end up in the dystopia without wanting to if we don't discuss this now," Daum
Extending the future beyond the environment and to the consumer
Acknowledging that the environment is directly related to agricultural practices is key, but Daum also describes how robot farms of the future would also directly affect normal people as well.
Robot farming may also concretely affect you as a consumer. In the utopia, we aren't just producing cereal crops--we have lots of fruits and vegetables whose relative prices would fall, so a healthier diet would become more affordable."
In Daum’s utopia, the small robot fleets would be better implemented in small-scale farms that could afford such systems through Uber-like services. This would contrast to popular opinion, as the majority of shareholders believe farmers would not subside in such robot-reliant practices. Nonetheless, Daum also describes how the family farm is less likely to survive in the dystopian scenario, which would solely benefit major manufacturers that are able to manage the vast swaths of land and the high costs of large machinery.
Many parts of the world already have many smaller farms that could benefit from the approaches of Daum’s utopia, including areas in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Other regions, such as the United States Russia, and Brazil, would be more challenging as they are dominated by large-scale farms producing high-volume, low-value grains and oilseed, and require destructive areas of open land for roaming herds of cattle. In the latter regions, small robot fleets would be less efficient and not an economically viable option.
"While it is true that the preconditions for small robots are more challenging in these areas," Daum says, "even with large robots--or a mix between small and large--we can take steps towards the utopia with practices such as intercropping, having hedgerows, agroforestry, and moving away from larger farms to smaller plots of land owned by large farmers. Some such practices may even pay o for farmers once robots can do the job, as previously uneconomic practices become profitable."
The choice between systems requires immediate action, funding could already be steered towards such projects and research could consider elements of machine learning and artificial intelligence geared to develop robots intelligent enough to adapt to complex, unstructured farm systems.
Additionally, developing and implementing policy changes are also a key necessity. "In the European Union, for example, farmers get money when they do certain landscape services like having a lot of trees or rivers on their farms," Daum says.
I think the utopia is achievable. It won't be as easy as the dystopia, but it's very much possible.”