Rethinking farms and food in the AI age

As robots and other inventions take over agriculture, society must rethink its relationship to those who nourish it. 

Reuters
A robot delivers burgers in Hamburg, Germany.

Tomorrow’s farmlands will look very similar to those of today. Tomorrow’s farmers, though, will look quite different.

Artificial intelligence is already reshaping agriculture with innovations like driverless tractors, robotic seed-planters, and drone crop sprayers. Such inventions are driving a competition to develop the first farm with equipment that is fully autonomous, perhaps within five years.

This shift toward automation could easily cause worry among those skeptical of technologies with little human touch and especially among those whose jobs get plowed under. AI, in fact, could radically change the current model of farm ownership. Farmers may, for example, lease their equipment because of the high cost of new machines. Manufacturers, meanwhile, will want to track the data of their equipment to both refine their inventions and keep farmers as dependent customers. This raises a question: If data-driven companies take over much of the actual agricultural work, will traditional farmers be a thing of the past? And how will today’s food consumers relate to farming by big data?

There’s reason not to despair. Technological innovation in agriculture solves numerous problems. AI farming promises fewer greenhouse gas emissions and higher efficiency – leading to more, healthier crops. Even though it will likely displace workers, there is already a notable skills gap in the agricultural equipment industry. Further development may open up more jobs and ease the load on overburdened farmers. Thus, when a team of engineers launched what they said was the world’s first autonomous tractor in Britain two years ago, many farmers applauded.

In general, misuse of data by big data firms has given the public cause to question large corporations. Agriculture is no exception. Yet the shift toward high-tech farming comes at a time of higher public awareness. Regulation may not yet be robust, but it’s catching up. Those officials responsible for oversight – in the U.S. and abroad – must require a careful, responsible approach from tech companies. AI farming is no longer the Wild West of change, but it’s not the city quite yet.

Past disruption in other industries provides examples for how to manage this change. Government, consumers, and corporations can ask what kind of agricultural world they want to live in, even before there is a clear view of tech’s consequences. Even with the introduction of bigger, more central farming methods, some farmers are moving in the other direction. A recent Monitor article documented the rise in silvopasture, an age-old farming method that manages grazing, livestock farming, and tree cultivation, which is ranked as the world’s ninth most impactful climate change solution. It represents movement toward the local, to more responsible, personal relationships with the land on which farmers rely. It also signals that, while the agricultural industry as a whole may become more corporate, what will remain are farmers who still tend the earth and reap its fruits in return.

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