Depending on who you listen to, artificial intelligence may either free us from monotonous labor and unleash huge productivity gains, or create a dystopia of mass unemployment and automated oppression. In the case of farming, some researchers, business people, and politicians think the effects of AI and other advanced technologies are so great they are spurring a “fourth agricultural revolution”.
Given the potentially transformative effects of upcoming technology on farming positive and negative, it’s vital that we pause and reflect before the revolution takes hold. It must work for everyone, whether it be farmers (regardless of their size or enterprise), landowners, farmworkers, rural communities, or the wider public.
Yet, in a recently published study led by the researcher Hannah Barrett, we found that policymakers and the media and policymakers are framing the fourth agricultural revolution as overwhelmingly positive, without giving much focus to the potential negative consequences.
1st Revolution: The adoption of modern agriculture (pre-1900s):
The first agricultural revolution occurred when humans started farming around 12,000 years ago. The second was the reorganization of farmland from the 17th century onwards that followed the end of feudalism in Europe. And the third (also known as the green revolution) was the introduction of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and new high-yield crop breeds alongside heavy machinery in the 1950s and 1960s.
The 18th century was a period of rapid experimentation and innovation in food production and livestock breeding, leading to the development of various new tools and soil management agricultural practices. This innovation was coupled with scientific testing of crop rotations, alterations to timing and duration of fallow, emerging scientific analysis on the use of manures, and other such practices all paved the way for modern agriculture as we know it. Yields increased dramatically, as did the size and scale of farms as they transitioned into their own commercial entities.
This specialization of agriculture paved the way for urbanization and the industrial revolution that followed.
2nd Revolution: Post-WW1 Mechanisation (1920s):
The invention of the internal combustion engine, which led to mechanized farm tools in the 1920s, supported further significant operating efficiencies. Farm productivity continued to increase. The reduced reliance on manual labor and horse-drawn ploughing meant that extensive cropping industries emerged and a greater variety of food was introduced into modern diets.
3rd Revolution: The green revolution (1960-70s):
The 1950s and 60s saw an increase in the application of the science of chemistry and the breeding of dwarf varieties of grains. This precipitated the “green” revolution of the 1960s and 70s whereby the use of nitrogen and phosphate fertilizers became widespread and global grain output tripled. Biotechnologies and genetic modification of agricultural goods also became a rapidly growing field. In the 1980s the drive to increase farmland declined due to greater awareness of the negative effects of land clearing and deforestation.
These new technologies led to the ultra-corporatization of agriculture and food production and launched agribusinesses to new multinational heights.
4th Revolution: The digital revolution:
The fourth agricultural revolution, much like the fourth industrial revolution, refers to the anticipated changes from new technologies, particularly the use of AI to make smarter planning decisions and power autonomous robots. Such intelligent machines could be used for growing and picking crops, weeding, milking livestock, and distributing agrochemicals via drone.
Other farming-specific technologies include new types of gene editing to develop higher-yielding, disease-resistant crops; vertical farms; and synthetic lab-grown meat.
These technologies are attracting huge amounts of funding and investment in the quest to boost food production while minimizing further environmental degradation. This might, in part, be related to positive media coverage. Our research found that UK coverage of new farming technologies tends to be optimistic, portraying them as key to solving farming challenges.
However, many previous agricultural technologies were also greeted with similar enthusiasm before leading to controversy later on, such as with the first genetically modified crops and chemicals such as the now-banned pesticide DDT. Given wider controversies surrounding emergent technologies like nanotechnology and driverless cars, unchecked or blind techno-optimism is unwise.
We mustn’t assume that all of these new farming technologies will be adopted without overcoming certain barriers. Precedent tells us that benefits are unlikely to be spread evenly across society and that some people will lose out. We need to understand who might lose and what we can do about it, and ask wider questions such as whether new technologies will actually deliver as promised.
Robotic milking of cows provides a good example. In our research, a farmer told us that using robots had improved his work-life balance and allowed a disabled farmworker to avoid dextrous tasks on the farm. But they had also created a “different kind of stress” due to the resulting information overload and the perception that the farmer needed to be monitoring data 24/7.
The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) argues that new technologies could attract younger, more technically skilled entrants to an aging workforce. Such breakthroughs could enable a wider range of people to engage in farming by eliminating the back-breaking stereotypes through the greater use of machinery.
But existing farmworkers at risk of being replaced by a machine or whose skills are unsuited to a new style of farming will inevitably be less excited by the prospect of change. And they may not enjoy being forced to spend less time working outside, becoming increasingly reliant on machines instead of their own knowledge.
Power Imbalance and 4th Revolution
There are also potential power inequalities in this new revolution. Our research found that some farmers were optimistic about a high-tech future. But others wondered whether those with less capital, poor broadband availability, and IT skills, and access to advice on how to use the technology would be able to benefit.
History suggests technology companies and larger farm businesses are often the winners of this kind of change, and benefits don’t always trickle down to smaller family farms. In the context of the fourth agricultural revolution, this could mean farmers not owning or being able to fully access the data gathered on their farms by new technologies. Or reliance on companies to maintain increasingly important and complex equipment.
The controversy surrounding GM crops (which are created by inserting DNA from other organisms) provides a frank reminder that there is no guarantee that new technologies will be embraced by the public. A similar backlash could occur if the public perceives gene editing (which instead involves making small, controlled changes to a living organism’s DNA) as tantamount to GM. Proponents of wearable technology for livestock claim they improve welfare, but the public might see the use of such devices as treating animals like machines.
Instead of blind optimism, we need to identify where the benefits and disadvantages of new agricultural technology will occur and for whom. This process must include a wide range of people to help create society-wide responsible visions for the future of farming.
The NFU has said the fourth agricultural revolution is “exciting as well as a bit scary but then the two often go together”. It is time to discuss the scary aspects with the same vigor as the exciting part.
Source: The Conversation and Food Agility