Farming's tech revolution to have losers as well as winners

ROME, Dec 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Smart technologies such as robotics could revolutionise farming and even solve a post-Brexit labour shortage, but risk having a negative social impact unless handled properly, researchers said on Friday.

From weeding to milking cows, more and more routine farming work can be done by machine - a trend that is changing agriculture “beyond recognition”, according a study by researchers at Britain’s University of East Anglia.

Robots could be used in fruit picking to ease labour shortages expected after Britain’s exit from the European Union, while robotics and artificial intelligence could save farmers money and protect the environment, they said.

But the social impact of these changes particularly on rural communities had not been fully considered, according to the paper published in the journal Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems.

“Robotics and artificial intelligence could cause job losses or change the nature of farming in ways that are undesirable to some farmers,” said co-author David Rose, a lecturer in human geography.

“Others might be left behind by technological advancement, while wider society might not like how food is being produced,” he said in a statement.

Decision-making could become concentrated in the hands of private companies and there could also be backlash similar to that against genetically modified crops, the study said.

Already, there is resistance to aspects of gene editing to make crops more desirable or resilient to changing weather patterns.

Researchers said smart farming innovations should not only improve productivity but also provide social benefits, meet human needs and be socially responsible.

“Innovation which involves the use of new and existing technologies will be essential for farmers to increase their agricultural output in the future,” said John Ruane from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

But it is crucial that technology “doesn’t widen the gap between rich farmers and poor farmers”, said Ruane, FAO’s senior consultant in agricultural innovation.

The FAO estimates there are at least 550 million farms in the world, of which about 90 percent are family farmers, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

“So if you do not consider small farmers, you’re ignoring hundreds of millions of individuals worldwide with their families, and this obviously has huge social challenges,” he added.