Farm robots could help save the environment … or further destroy it

14 Juli 2021

Advances in robotics are changing the way we manufacture and do things and the same applies to agriculture. Farm robots are already making inroads into agricultural work and AI-driven machines are set to revolutionize how we grow and harvest crops. But whether that will be for the better or worse will depend.

In one scenario, mapped out by Thomas Daum, an agricultural economist in Germany, robots may usher in an ecological utopia where small intelligent robots help us grow organic produce in eminently sustainable ways around green fields, scenic meadows and burbling streams that allow plenty of space for wildlife to coexist.

By employing robots for labor-intensive work like fertilizing and weeding, farmers could ensure that their agricultural lands and their environs remain fairly pristine.

Small robots could spray targeted amounts of biopesticides sparingly and use laser beams to remove weeds without harming useful insects like bees and other plants in the process. The soil and water sources would remain rich, unpolluted by chemicals leeching into them.

“It’s like a Garden of Eden,” posits Daum, a research fellow at the University of Hohenheim in Germany who studies agricultural development strategies. “Small robots could help conserve biodiversity and combat climate change in ways that were not possible before.”

In another scenario, however, we may be in for a dystopia where large robots are enlisted for mass production in dreary and destructive monocultures with little space left for any biodiversity.

Large, cumbersome machines could be used to cultivate a few monoculture crops that would dominate the landscape, leaving environmental havoc in their wake as plenty of chemicals like pesticides would be sprayed liberally. Anything that was deemed superfluous to the cause of mass production would be eliminated or decimated, including wildlife, as already happens at large monocultural farms.

As technological advances progress at breakneck speed, we should begin to consider how we want to use robots for agriculture to ensure we make the right choices, Daum argues.

“The utopia and dystopia are both possible from a technological perspective. But without the right guardrails on policy, we may end up in the dystopia without wanting to if we don’t discuss this now,” he stresses.

Needless to say, the world we are about to create will impact us all for better or worse.

“Robot farming may also concretely affect you as a consumer,” the German expert explains. “In the utopia, we aren’t just producing cereal crops — we have lots of fruits and vegetables whose relative prices would fall, so a healthier diet would become more affordable.”

In addition, while individual farmers could well afford to use small robots for organic agriculture, it will only be large corporations that could defray the considerable costs of large machines for monocultural cultivation. As a result, it will likely be a combination of both scenarios that will be adopted, depending on local circurmstances.

In Europe with its patchworks of smaller farms, the utopian scenario could well prevail, while in countries like the United States, Russia and Brazil, with large swathes of land already used for producing high volumes of low-value grains the dystopian scenario is more likely.

“While it is true that the preconditions for small robots are more challenging in these [latter] areas, even with large robots — or a mix between small and large — we can take steps towards the utopia with practices such as intercropping, having hedgerows, agroforestry, and moving away from larger farms to smaller plots of land owned by large farmers,” Daum says.

“Some such practices may even pay off for farmers once robots can do the job, as previously uneconomic practices become profitable,” he adds.

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