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. 

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.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Rethinking farms and food in the AI age
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today