Robots, Drones, and …Food Production?
Robots, Drones, and …Food Production?

Robots, Drones, and …Food Production?

3 min read
Written by Alexandros Glaros

You see a shadow cross a field. It moves back and forth, up and down, generating a buzz with the intensity of a million mosquitoes. It’s a drone. It snaps pictures, each with a resolution down to a single blade of grass. Meanwhile, the farmer sits at her table eating breakfast. She receives updates on her phone and computer, with information on soil nitrogen concentration, early-warning signs of crop disease and soil moisture content. After breakfast, she inputs these data files into a flash drive, that is then jabbed into a self-driving tractor.

Advanced food production technologies, from drones to self-driving tractors, are being developed and applied to fields across the world. These technologies appear under multiple names: precision farming, smart farming, digital agriculture, the list goes on…

The potential economic and environmental benefits of these technologies are clear and have been outlined in greater detail elsewhere. Suffice it to say that these benefits involve the optimized application of agricultural inputs across seeding, watering, fertilizing, weeding and harvesting procedures. It is suggested that by optimizing their production practices, producers lessen disturbance of their immediate and surrounding ecosystems, reduce input cost, and encourage optimal plant growth for a higher quantity and quality of produce.

However, there are massive, critical questions associated with the adoption of these agricultural technologies. Here are some examples of those questions…

On a broader scale, structural thinkers are calling attention to the dynamics of ‘who owns what?’ and ‘with what consequences?’ Will these technologies be developed by private firms and sold to farmers, with government-provided assistance; or be democratized and ‘hacked’ onto existing farm equipment by farmers themselves; or some iteration in between? Some individuals are asking similar questions regarding the ownership of data generated by these technologies, highlighting the interplay between farmers, government, and large and small tech firms. A central concern in this stream of critiques is the loss of producer autonomy, as farmers may be forced to rely on public and private-provided capital, finance, and knowledge to operate these technologies.

Furthermore, discussion is ensuing around the effects of digital, automated agricultural technologies on production practices and labour. Will they incentivize the further industrialization of food production? How and to what extent will these technologies be adopted across the world, and with what implications for rural labour? The worry here is that these technologies will reproduce the industrial model of food production, with all its associated benefits and consequences.

At a smaller scale, how do these technologies align or differ with farmer values? Do farmers prefer to sit at a computer to code, head into the field to get their hands dirty, or somewhere in-between?

In other words, it is important to consider how this emerging software and hardware are affecting the lived-experience of producers and farming culture, more generally.

Hopefully, you didn’t read this blog post in hopes of getting answers to these questions. All I know is that I certainly don’t know the answers… Regardless of our position in the debate for or against the application of digital, automated agricultural technologies in the Waterloo-region, Canada or beyond, we must be critical before blindly pursuing their adoption.

As Wendell Berry reminds us:

The technology of infinity (however that might be defined) would be vast and exclusive…It might at first seem that enormous power would lie in the hands of the ‘couple of telefarm operators’ who would be feeding a million people; but it seems more likely that they, too, would be the absolute slaves of their machinery. (Berry, 1977, 78)

Cited References:

Berry, W. (1977). Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture. Berkeley: Counterpoint.