Responsible Farming Futures: anticipating the consequences of new technologies

We are on the cusp of a revolution in farming in which emergent technologies promise to change production systems beyond recognition. But as well as the promised benefits, writes Dr David Rose, Elizabeth Creak Associate Professor of Agricultural Innovation and Extension at the University of Reading, there will inevitably be some risks

These new technologies include Artificial Intelligence, robotics, drones, gene editing, the Internet of Things, among many others.

The interests of our research group in the University of Reading School of Agriculture, Policy and Development draws on work in science and technology studies – put simply, we are interested in the risks, opportunities, and benefits provided by new technologies, how these are spread (un)evenly across society, and who decides what farming futures look like.

Technological benefits

There is no doubt that new technologies aimed at enhancing crop health and protection promise many benefits. For example, small autonomous robots used to zap weeds in the field could limit damage to soils (good for crops and limiting erosion and pollution), reduce the capital investment of labour, and reach areas of the field much more effectively than traditional, larger equipment. Likewise, intelligent drones may well be able to spot crop diseases before a human agronomist, and offer the ability to spray for them without the farmer leaving the office.

Risks of change

Our work, however, looks at whether promised benefits actually occur in practice and what the risks of technological change are. There are several practical difficulties of implementing some of these new technologies. First, the digital skills needed to operate and interpret new gadgets are not simple to learn, although a service model of delivery, where companies fly drones and monitor robots, can address this (though see below on data ownership).

Second, digital infrastructure, namely broadband, is not currently good enough in many rural areas to allow machines to talk to each other in the field or to send collected data.

Third, legal restrictions, for example on the use of drones or autonomous robots, may render the technology practically unusable in a real-world setting.

Winners and losers

It would also be unwise to think that the benefits of the technology revolution in farming are going to be spread evenly among practitioners. Concerns have been raised that bigger, powerful companies will reap the benefits of this revolution and those farmers who have greater adaptive capacity to change, either because of better cashflows, education, or advisory networks, are likely to be better placed to harness rewards. Smaller farmers with less ability to invest in new technology, and less social capital to be assisted in doing so, may well fall behind. There will be winners and losers of the technology revolution and policy-makers should be thinking about who those losers will be so that help can be given.

In what ways might farmers ‘lose’ from the technology revolution? Data has been a significant area of interest in research. In a survey of 1000 Australian farmers, it was found that 74% did not know much at all about the terms and conditions relating to data collection by service providers (e.g. from drones, sensors etc.) and only 24% said they would be happy if companies had direct access to their farm data. Also, 67% of farmers said they would not be happy if service providers used such data to make profits and 56% said they did not trust them to keep their data safe.

Areas of concern

Five key areas of concern about data were thus identified: (1) a lack of transparency; (2) data ownership; (3) data security; (4) inequality of bargaining power; (5) unevenness of benefit-sharing between farmers. Various solutions have been suggested to improve transparency of data sharing, including Blockchain, but this is an area in which legislation or clear guidelines will be required in order that increased data collection works for all farmers, and not just for powerful companies who can use it to improve R+D and targeting of products.

Several other ethical implications of the technology revolution have also been raised, including the impact on the farm workforce, and farmer physical and mental health. While new technologies may attract different workers into farming, including a younger audience equipped to design, use, and repair them, traditional farm workers will be displaced if they cannot adapt to new conditions. In some sectors, where there is a reliance on increasingly unreliable seasonal migrant labour (to be made worse with Brexit), replacement of this labour by robots may be no bad thing, but some people are going to lose out.

How will farmers be affected?

Work has also been done that explores how farmers feel about new technologies which require them to spend more time in the office, rather than out in the field. For some, this might improve their lifestyle, potentially freeing up more time to spend with family and reducing the physical burden of the job. For others, however, it will cause a disconnection from the land and they will enjoy the role less.

The fourth technology revolution will undeniably change production systems, although we should remember that futures are not set in stone in democracies. If farming futures are to be responsible, we should seek to include the views of all those affected by innovation – not just the most innovative farmers, or the most disruptive tech providers. We should remember that innovation is not just technological, but above all we need to anticipate all of the consequences of new technologies, both good and bad.

Beyond the headlines

This means going beyond the hyped headlines where drones, robots, and the Internet of Things promise huge benefits to productivity and the environment. Perhaps they do – but what are their unforeseen consequences? What will happen if you look harder into the future? What side-effects may occur and are benefits shared equally among farmers, advisors, and others in the industry? These are questions we should all be raising the next time we are introduced to a so-called ‘game-changing’ technology.

Dr David Rose is Elizabeth Creak Associate Professor of Agricultural Innovation and Extension at the University of Reading. He works on technology adoption and behaviour change in farming, as well as exploring the ethics of the fourth technology revolution. He is also conducting research on the co-design of the new Environmental Land Management Scheme in England. Research students in the group are exploring the implications of precision livestock farming for animal welfare (Juliette Schillings) and how farming futures can be made more inclusive (Auvikki de Boon).

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Please note, the opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of CHAP.