Agriculture is one of the oldest and most far-reaching endeavors in the world. Meeting the growing food demands of the global population—expected to reach 10 billion by 2050—in the midst of accelerating climate change represents an unprecedented balancing act that requires human inventiveness, good governance, and technology.
The last time the agricultural sector went through a seismic shift like this was when new technologies, such as high-yield wheat and rice seeds, chemical fertilizers, and irrigation technologies, sparked the Green Revolution in the 1960s. In the next 30 years, grain production in Asia, a continent prone to famines, doubled and wheat and rice became cheaper, despite the fact that the population increased by 60% in this period.
Unfortunately, the Green Revolution brought with it several environmental costs. Lax regulations and large subsidies pushed down the prices of fertilizers and pesticides, and untrained farmers overused them, damaging soils and polluting waterways. As new crops advanced, traditional plant varieties were lost, contributing to the loss of biodiversity.
Robots are not substitutes for human farmers. But they can make food production more sustainable, more available and cheaper.
The rise of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) could help usher in a second Green Revolution that is also more environmentally friendly. Robots are already harvesting crops, weeding and gathering data to improve soil management. Soon they will be as common in farm pastures and greenhouses as they are in medical labs or Amazon warehouses. AI is expected to help meet food and climate goals with greater precision in farm work, as well as making it possible to harvest more and waste less.
AI-powered programs like IBM’s Watson combine data from weather patterns, crop yields, and market prices to advise farmers on the best time to plant, the precise amount of fertilizer to use, and when to harvest to achieve ideal ripeness. . Researchers at Microsoft and the Netherlands’ Wageningen University near Arnhem grow cucumbers with the help of algorithms, combining this kind of intelligence with human labor to improve crops while using fewer natural resources.
In California, a state that grows fruits and vegetables with large-scale irrigation, these technologies can mean significant savings in terms of hiring seasonal workers. For example, a $150,000 (€138,089) grape-harvesting robot can handle two tons of grapes in 12 minutes, which means replacing 15 human seasonal workers and reducing the use of fertilizers, pesticides, and water, while producing bigger harvests.
The great advantage of robotics is that it allows small farmers to compete with their larger counterparts.
In the past, farm automation was characterized by large crops or industrial tracts that used heavy machinery to improve yields. Mechanization on this scale increased producers’ dependence on fossil fuels and the uncontrolled use of chemicals. In addition, the high costs meant that small farmers, especially in lower income countries, lacked access to them, effectively creating greater income inequalities.
Digital technologies help change this situation to benefit large and small scale farmers. For example, following the example of sharing economy apps like Uber, they have installed GPS devices and software fleet management systems that allow small producers to share resources for farm automation. Some companies, such as TROTRO Tractor in Ghana and Tun Yat in Myanmar, make it possible for them to share the cost of renting a tractor that they could not afford alone.
Digital support can also update traditional mechanization, even if it is not advanced technologies. For example, GPS devices that can track cattle (smart collars) and transmit data about their health and movements, thus determining the amount of food needed and automating the feeding process, in order to improve productivity.
Robotics also has the capacity to further marginalize the poor people of the planet, especially those who come from rural areas.
The great advantage of robotics is its potential for cost effectiveness, allowing small farmers to compete with their larger counterparts. Just like computers and smartphones, once manufactured in large numbers, these machines should become much cheaper, paving the way for more widespread use.
However, by favoring highly-skilled workers over lesser-skilled ones, robotics and AI-based tools have the potential to deepen current inequalities and further marginalize the world’s poorest; especially those who live in rural areas and struggle to make ends meet working on a small piece of land, without access to markets or financial services.
To make sure agricultural automation, from tractors to drones, is inclusive, governments must invest in essential infrastructure, including bringing electricity and broadband connectivity to rural areas. They should also offer training on these digital tools to generate a new class of skilled farmers who can handle more advanced technologies, and create new advanced skills training opportunities for rural youth.
Robotics and artificial intelligence are still in an early stage of development
There is no question that technology alone will not undo the world’s failings to grow food more sustainably or make farming more efficient and equitable. Nor can it transform agriculture overnight. Robotics and AI, in both California and Kenya, are still expensive and tend to favor larger farmers over smaller ones. Furthermore, increased use of robotics could stimulate the expansion of monoculture systems, as the machines require uniformity to function efficiently, which could lead to a loss of genetic diversity.
Robotics and AI in agriculture are still at an early stage of development. Realizing the full potential of the Second Green Revolution requires well-thought-out policies and rigorous post-adoption impact evaluations.
Robots are not substitutes for human farmers. But they can make food production more sustainable, more available, and cheaper in the future with billions of extra humans to feed. It’s time we gave them a chance.
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