(CN) — The future of farming is here.
Picture fleets of small robots producing diverse organic crops on a sustainable farm where trees and streams populate the idyllic landscape. Or tractor-sized robots planting and harvesting endless acres of a single crop surrounded by high walls and cameras.
Which vision ultimately appears is up to society and the voters who influence these decisions, according to a new study in the peer-reviewed journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution.
While the technology producing these robots is rapidly approaching critical mass, a debate ensues over what form of farming such tech should promote.
While robots are standard in manufacturing, they are also used routinely in livestock production, such as in milking and feeding animals and cleaning barns. But field robots — “mobile, autonomous, decision-making, mechatronic devices that accomplish crop production tasks (e.g., soil preparation, seeding, transplanting, weeding, pest control, and harvesting) under human supervision” — are the wave of the future.
“It’s like a Garden of Eden,” says agricultural economist Thomas Daum, a research fellow at the University of Hohenheim in Germany. “Small robots could help conserve biodiversity and combat climate change in ways that were not possible before.”
Such small mobile robots could benefit the environment by allowing plants to be more diverse and the soil to be richer in nutrients thanks to techniques such as micro-spraying pesticides and and removing weeds with lasers, which would also protect local water sources and insect populations while boosting organic crop yields.
Using small robotic fleets working all hours of the day and night would allow farmers to adopt agro-ecological farming practices that integrate grain crops, fruit and vegetables as well as trees and animals — an approach previously constrained by high labor costs, according to the study. Additional benefits of light robots include reduced soil compaction and degradation while enabling continuous plant-specific husbandry.
But a parallel future is equally possible, one in which massive robotic machines would level the landscape to cultivate monoculture crops utilizing agrochemicals and pesticides to increase yields — an outcome Daum labels “dystopian.”
“Without the right guardrails on policy, we may end up in the dystopia without wanting to if we don’t discuss this now,” he explains.
This type of large-scale farming would inevitably increase land consolidation as massive farm corporations would be the only entities that could afford such significant investments, making family farms a thing of the past.
While small robotic farming offers environmental advantages, such machines perform less efficiently on such energy-intensive tasks as threshing, harvesting and transport crops, making them less gainful in regions such as Australia, Brazil, Canada, Eastern Europe, Russia and the U.S., which are historically dominated by large-scale farms that produce high-volume, low-value grains.
To counter these disadvantages, governments can channel research funds and utilize regulations, subsidies and taxes to influence farmers.
“The future [of agricultural robots] should … not be decided by manufacturers and farmers alone, but by society at large,” Daum advises. “Societies have to anticipate possible effects and develop governance mechanisms to harness the potential of robots to serve the people and the planet.”
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