A Dangerous Road: A New Technological Revolution in Food

Back in 1968 The Population Bomb, by Paul and Anne Ehrlich, created a sensation with its predictions of famine and Malthusian disaster. Ultimately their predictions were proven to be incorrect, at least in terms of the time-frame that the authors suggested. What the Ehrlichs had failed to take into account was the so-called Green Revolution in agriculture that had begun in the 1950s but was a long way from reaching its potential impact on food production. Technological innovation, through new methods, new crop varieties, the use of oil-powered machinery, artificial pesticides and fertilizers transformed farming across the world, particularly in developing countries where it had not been utilized before.

Greater efficiency in production meant that as the human population continued expanding the production of food supplies would also expand to meet and surpass the necessary levels to sustain the continued growth of humanity. This revolution in agriculture was hailed as a miraculous success, which is perhaps true in the sense that its rollout probably saved millions or even billions of people from death by starvation and diseases caused by malnutrition. Paul Ehrlich, himself, acknowledges that he was indeed wrong but still believes that his fundamental theory was correct and that we have merely deferred an inevitable disaster.

Some sixty years after the Green Revolution began we now understand that the effects of this dramatic change are not all positive. While it brought farmers from a way of working that had not changed fundamentally in hundreds and in some places thousands of years, to more efficient modern methods, it has also been highly destructive. Just as the automation of the Industrial Revolution caused unemployent and mass migration in Europe, the Green Revolution did the same thing in much of the developing world. Instead of being subsistence farmers in their ancestral villages many people find themselves making products in factories under horrific conditions that leave them little or no better off than previous generations.

Even if you choose to ignore the social implications of this transition, it is hard to ignore the catastrophic enviromental cost of the Green Revolution. The truth is that the success of this new agriculture did not come for free – it was a trade off between increased productivity and increased enviromental damage. In recent decades we have all become aware of the decimation of the planet – through burning fossil fuels, deforestation, pollution, desertification etc. Much of these problems are a direct result of the continual expansion of modern agriculture. Brazil has been cited as a great success story of the Green Revolution but at what cost? The reality of the situation is catastrophic rainforest loss, biodiversity loss and destruction of the soil to produce cheap crops for export. Part of this process has been to make the land less acidic by putting tens of millions of tonnes of lime on Brazillian fields, resulting in Brazil being the world’s second largest exporter of soya beans. Formerly biodiverse land is also used to raise cattle, but in both cases the land eventually ends up depleted and reliant on continual artificial fertilization.

The evidence of the last sixty years should be more than enough to demonstrate that we need a rethink about agriculture and how it can be made sustainable in a world of finite resources. Less than half of the world’s population now lives in rural areas and about one third of the world’s working people work in agriculture, although numbers in both these areas are likely drop in coming decades. We are fast approaching another technological revolution in food production and signs of it are already in evidence. If one travels through rural France the landscape is dramatically changed from that of a few decades, due to the proliferation of mega-farms. In Australia some of the farms owned by one or a few people are of staggering proportions, running into many millions of acres. In China you’ll find the two largest individual farms in the world, comprising over 33 million acres between them.

A new report in the UK, The Future of Food 2040, gives an optimistic although cautious look at what farming might look like in two decades from now, it offers some sobering thoughts about how industrial agriculture will look to deal with the challenges ahead. The overriding theme of the report is that of technological innovation to continue to produce food in the quality and quantity needed to keep up with future demands.

A major part of what is predicted for the future of agriculture is automation through the introduction of robotics, drones and AI to improve efficiency. A nod is given to ideas such as increased recyling, less waste, renewable energy and pollution control, but ultimately this is a vision of the high-tech farm that will operate almost by itself – with few or no people.

This report applies to the UK but with the increasing spread of large-scale agricultural concerns, similar technological rollout is likely to happen all over the world. There is increasing integration between food technology, global biochemical industry (note Monsanto and Bayer have merged) and the agricultural sector. Large scale farming operations will be able to implement these innovations at an early stage making them more competitive and leaving the small producers even further behind. Some of the technology discussed is quite startling – nanoencapsulation (coating tiny particles), genome editing in breeding, 3d printing of food and even GPS collars on livestock to monitor and control their location using ‘negative electric stimuli capability’, more commonly known as electric shocks.

Robotics is likely to play a big part in this new technological Green Revolution – driverless, autonomous farm vehicles; drones to monitor and spray crops; robotic fruit pickers and autonomous animal or crop care bots, all of which will be monitored and controlled through sophisticated AI software. The report suggests that the global market for robots in agriculture will vastly expand, from $3 billion in 2015 to well over $70 billion by 2024. Clearly, automation although in its infancy, is already here and set to expand in an explosive way.

One might argue that all of this is a good thing and that, as it did from the 1950s, enable us to feed an ever increasing human population. One can say that technology, in itself, is not a bad thing and that we should not be scared by the increasing visibility of robotics in society; after all we’ve been using tools since we lived in caves. However, one must look at who is really going to benefit from this creeping industrialization and automation of food, our most basic necessity.

For those that can afford to invest in these new technological innovations it is likely to be a real ‘game changer’. Just as the arrival of a new tractor transformed the horse-powered farm, this technology will transform productivity and profitability. However, this does not really take into account the human element of the equation. Farmers usually live on or next to their farms, they need to support a household and probably a number of family members as well as themselves. With the increasing consolidation of small farms into larger ones – either by big farmers or corporate farming interests, the mega-farm will be avail of these innovations while the small farmer may not. The mega-farm will no longer need significant staff levels, perhaps only a manager who understands software as well as he/she does farming.

Already one can see a trend of industrial food producers and supermarkets becoming increasingly involved in agriculture, if this trend continues the traditional farmer could become a rare sight. In twenty years from now the majority of farms may be gigantic but with far fewer or even no people physically present. One must ask if this vision of the future is about better practices, productivity and good food or is it about eliminating the troublesome costs of human labour and human error in order to maximize profits? Will the consumer truly benefit from these predicted changes or will this mean even less transparency in an industry that already makes great efforts to hide unethical practices?

Technology has the ability to be an incredible and transformative boon to how we live and can play a vital role in solving our environmental problems in the decades ahead. Unfortunately, if the past is anything to go by, it will lead to consolidation of already too powerful industrial interests, unemployment, environmental depletion and increased profits into fewer and fewer pockets. Now is the time for us to look at where this is going and demand that governments do not allow this to evolve unchecked. If commercialization of such life-changing technology occurs without careful and decisive oversight, it could have dangerous implications for human society and the future of the planet itself.

Luke Eastwood is a horticulturist and writer based in Ireland. Read other articles by Luke, or visit Luke's website.