Beware of robot farmhands?

Robot Farmer by rle13746 for the Time Machine 3 contest at Worth1000.com

A student in my Sustainable Agriculture program sent out an email a few weeks ago that really piqued my interest (I’m glad I finally have time to blog about it!). It included a link to the New Scientist article: Robot farmhands prepare to invade the countryside. The student said:

I wish this was a link to the onion, but it is frighteningly real. Do you think the cats at the “appropriate technology” center are talking about this? Doubt it. This is progress! I guess now I need a bumper sticker that says “Family farms not Robot farms”

While I respect this student’s viewpoint, I find it to be incredibly depressing. Yes, having robots added to the already long list of farm machinery would change some things, but can we so quickly assume that all of the changes would be negative? This knee jerk reaction against technology is too reminiscent of so many people’s reactions to genetic engineering. Yes, some technologies have been and will continue to be misused. Other technologies have undeniably changed human life for the better. If we allow ourselves to step back and think about the potential risks and benefits, where will robots fit into farming, if at all?

First, robots are unlikely to replace farmers, unlike this whimsical take on American Gothic. Farm labor is a huge problem, even on smaller farms. Migrant manual laborers is not the answer. The pay is never going to be high enough, even if we started to pay the “right” amount for food. Robots could at least in part replace literally backbreaking labor, and provide skilled jobs for people in building, repairing, and maintaining the robots. We’d need tons of computer programmers. We’d need lots of agronomists to evaluate current uses and think of new uses for the robots. Whole industries could spring up making accessories for the robots, and all those accessories would need to be built and maintained as well. These robots would even create jobs for philosophers and bioethicists, who would need to help the rest of us understand the role of robots and the implication this might have for humanity. Perhaps we could lobby for a requirement that government grants for agricultural robots include a stipend for a philosopher or ethicist?

With the added labor, the number of family farms might actually increase. The Des Moines Register Juice had an article last week that reminded readers:

This summer, while you drive past the miles and miles of rolling corn and soybean fields that give our state its reputation, chew on these numbers: In 2007, 55 percent of Iowa’s farmland was owned by farmers aged 65 and older, and 28 percent by farmers pushing 75, according to a survey conducted by Michael Duffy, director of the Beginning Farmer Center.

There simply aren’t enough young people willing to farm in the US. There aren’t enough people willing to farm in the big monoculture systems. There aren’t even enough farmers to fill the (currently) niche demand for local produce. Adding robot farmhands to the equation would make farming easier and yet more difficult. Farmers could rely on robots as much or as little as they want (or not at all). People who are interested in technology would now have agriculture open to them as a field. My husband, for example, isn’t the type of person you’d ever see gardening, but he would be very interested in programming a sensor that could identify leaf blight and in programming a robot to spray affected leaves or plants with a mild fungicide like potassium bicarbonate solution. A farmer that developed and improved programs for the robots could sell them or license them as a source of off-farm income. Side note: the fact that this is all being developed by a university is very encouraging. If this continues, perhaps the programs will be more open source than it might have been if the robots were developed by a corporation.

Having robots as farmhands solves a lot of problems in farming. For example, we have developed ways to cheaply grow crops we shouldn’t be growing but the methods for crops we should have more of haven’t advanced much at all. Robots could be the way to bring farming costs down for fruits and vegetables, making them more accessible to people with low incomes. Because the robots would be more versatile than current farming machinery, there is the potential to do away with monocultures. If a robot simply needs additional programming modules and/or accessories to properly “tend” another crop species, why not intermix grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables? This of course has many benefits as proponents of sustainable agriculture already know, including decreasing the incidence of disease and pests for each crop.

In addition to opening up new options in intercropping and permaculture, robots could greatly decrease the amount of fertilizers and pesticides needed to maintain high yields. If the robots were equipped with the proper sensors, even simple things like for leaf color, they could evaluate the health of individual plants in a field. Instead of spraying an entire field with fungicide, the robot could spot treat (or simply remove infected plants). Similarly, fertilizer could be applied far more sparingly, then spot applied for plants in areas that test low for a particular nutrient. There is also potential for decrease in herbicide application if we have a robot that could hand pull, flame, or spot treat high-competition weeds but leave weeds that don’t compete with crops, since visual recognition with comparison to a database shouldn’t be that difficult (especially when mistakes aren’t a big deal, unlike in more complex situations like facial recognition for security). Leaving the low competition weeds would create habitat and biodiversity while maintaining high crop yields. All of the sensor results and treatments could be maintained in a database along with the physical coordiates and the information used by the farmer for future planning.

These few benefits are just what I could think of in a few minutes. What could teams of roboticists, agronomists, and farmers on the ground accomplish?

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