Automated farming: good news for food security, bad news for job security?

New technology is revolutionising modern farming, but this brave new world of robot farms and hi-tech sensors could have consequences for rural livelihoods

Lettuce in indoor farm
Japanese firm Spread has said it will open the world’s first fully automated farm with robots handling almost every step of the process. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

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 revolutionising 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 fertilise, and how much to irrigate. As this technology progresses, equipment will ultimately be able to tailor decisions on a metre-by-metre basis.

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 UK research institute the John Innes Centre, for example, are attempting to create a strain of barley that would make its own ammonium fertiliser from nitrogen in the soil, something which could save farmers the cost of artificial fertilisers.

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 10 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 maximises production while minimising negative impact.

However, there are problems. In many of the poorer parts of the world, sophisticated agricultural technologies are much less important than education, healthcare, access to capital, sound governance and basic infrastructure. 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.

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