April 23, 2024

Farm robots, no longer science fiction but already here, have created two extremes of the future of farming and its impact on the environment. Thomas Daum, an agricultural economist, argues this in a Science & Society piece published on July 13th, 2021, in the journalĀ Trends in Ecology & Evolution. The first is a utopia where small intelligent robots work harmoniously with the environment to grow organic, diverse crops. One is a utopia, where fleets of tiny, intelligent robots farm harmoniously with nature to produce various organic crops.

He describes his utopian scenario as an interwoven mosaic of lush, green fields and streams with wild flora, fauna, and insects. Fleets of small robots powered by renewable energy fly around the areas while their whirrs are mixed in with bird songs and insect chirps. Daum, a German research fellow studying agricultural development strategies at the University of Hohenheim, says: “It is like a Garden of Eden.” “Small robotics could help preserve biodiversity and combat climate changes in ways never before possible.”

He says that the ideal scenario would benefit the environment on many levels. It is labor-intensive for conventional farming but possible with robots. The soil and plants would be richer in nutrients, with more variety. The water, soil bacteria, and insect population would be healthier thanks to micro-spraying and laser welding. The yields of organic crops, often lower than those of conventional crops, would increase, and the environmental impact would be reduced.

He says that a future with negative environmental implications is also possible. In that scenario, he says, giant but technologically-crude robots would bulldoze the natural landscape, and a few monoculture crops would dominate the terrain. The large fences would separate people, farms, and wildlife. Agrochemicals and other pesticides could be used more widely if humans are removed from farms. These robots would thrive on structure and control, hurting the environment.

Daum notes that the future will unlikely only be either Dystopia or utopia. By creating these scenarios, he hopes to ignite a conversation in what he believes to be a moment of crossroads. Both Dystopia and heaven are possible from a technological perspective. Daum warns that if we do not discuss the issue now, we could end up in a dystopia.

These impacts don’t just affect the environment – they also impact ordinary people. He says that robot farming could also have a concrete effect on you, the consumer. In the utopia, we don’t only produce cereal crops – we have a lot of fruits and veggies whose prices would drop, making a healthier diet more affordable.

Small robots, as described in Daum’s utopian scenario, would be easier to afford for small-scale farms. They could also share them via Uber-like services. He argues, however, that in the dystopian future, the family farm will be less likely to survive. Only significant manufacturers could manage the large swathes of land and the high cost of large machinery.

There are many benefits to consciously working towards the utopian vision in parts of Europe and Asia. In countries such as the United States or Brazil, where large-scale farms have historically produced low-value, high-volume grains and oilseeds, it is more challenging to achieve this utopian scenario. Small robots, less efficient at energy-intensive tasks such as threshing the corn, may not be the best option for these countries.

He says that while it’s true that small robots have more difficult preconditions in these areas, we can still make progress toward utopia by using practices like intercropping, hedgerows, and agroforestry. We can also move away from large farms and onto smaller plots owned by larger farmers. Once robots can work, some of these practices could be profitable for farmers.

To do so requires action now, Daum says. Although some aspects of this romantic scenario, such as laser welding, have been developed and are ready for distribution, funding is needed to fund other parts of machine learning and artificial intelligence to create intelligent robots to adapt and work in complex and unstructured farming systems. It is also necessary to make policy changes. These could be in the form of regulations, taxes, or subsidies. In the European Union, for instance, farmers receive money when they perform certain landscape services, such as having many trees or rivers on their farm, says he.

Although it might seem that the dystopian scenario is the most likely, this is not the only way forward. Daum believes that the utopia scenario is possible. It won’t be easy, but very reasonable.

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