Rome – Agricultural automation, from tractors to artificial intelligence, can play an important role in making food production more efficient and greener. However, its uneven introduction can also exacerbate inequalities, especially if it is inaccessible to small producers and other marginalized groups, such as youth and women.
The 2022 edition of The State of Food and Agriculture (SOFA) , one of the flagship reports produced each year by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), examines how automating our agri-food systems can contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, and recommendations are offered to policymakers on how to maximize benefits and minimize risks.
From tractor rental services in Ghana to shrimp farming containers in Mexico using machine learning and robotics, the report examines 27 case studies from around the world featuring technologies at various stages preparation and suitable for agricultural producers at different scales and with different income levels.
The drivers of these technologies are investigated and various barriers to their adoption, particularly by smallholders, are identified. Based on this analysis, the publication proposes policies to ensure that agricultural automation is inclusive and contributes to the sustainability and resilience of agri-food systems.
Finally, the report also addresses one of the most common concerns about automation – that it creates unemployment – and concludes that these fears are not borne out by historical reality.
According to the report, taken together, automation alleviates labor shortages and can make agricultural production more resilient and productive, improve product quality, increase resource efficiency, promote decent employment and improve environmental sustainability.
“FAO truly believes that without technological advancement and increased productivity, there is no chance of freeing hundreds of millions of people from poverty, hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition,” wrote Mr. QU Dongyu, Director General of the Organization, in the foreword to the report. “What matters is how the automation process is carried out in practice, not whether it happens or not. We must ensure that automation is done in a way that is inclusive and promotes sustainability.”
Advances in automation
Throughout history, mankind has constantly striven to make farming less tiring by crafting ingenious tools and harnessing the power of fire, wind, water, and animals. By 4000 B.C. C., the farmers of Mesopotamia used plows drawn by oxen, and towards the year 1000 a. C. water mills emerged in China.
The pace of technological change has accelerated brutally over the past two centuries, fueled by the discovery of the steam engine and further reinforced by the advent of fossil-fueled tractors.
Currently, a new revolution related to digital technologies is taking place, including artificial intelligence, drones, robotics, sensors and global navigation satellite systems, in addition to the great proliferation of handheld devices such as mobile phones and a spate of new Internet-connected devices, the so-called Internet of Things. Another important development includes the collaborative economy. For example, asset-sharing services in Africa and Asia employ a model similar to that of the Uber taxi app, as they allow small and medium-scale farmers to access expensive equipment, such as tractors, without having to purchase it.
Critically, there are wide disparities between and within countries in the spread of automation, which has been particularly limited in sub-Saharan Africa. For example, as early as 2005 it was estimated that there were more than 400 tractors per 1,000 hectares of arable land in Japan, compared to just 0.4 in Ghana.
In addition, some technologies are still at the prototype stage, while for others, limitations in supporting rural infrastructure, such as connectivity and electricity, hamper their diffusion, especially in low-income countries. and medium.
It should also be noted that certain technologies, such as heavy motorized machinery, can have a negative environmental impact by contributing to monoculture and soil erosion. However, recent advances in smaller machinery are helping to overcome these problems.
The general principle underlying the policy recommendations presented in the report centers on the idea of responsible technological change. This entails anticipating the impacts of technologies on productivity, resilience and sustainability, while paying particular attention to marginalized and vulnerable groups.
The key here is to create an enabling environment that requires a variety of complementary policy instruments operating in a coherent way. These include legislation and regulations, infrastructure, institutional arrangements, education and training, research and development, and support for private sector innovation processes.
To reduce inequalities in the spread of automation, inclusive investments should be made that cater to producers, manufacturers and service providers, with particular attention to women and youth, in order to further develop technologies and adapt them to needs of end users.
In addition, investments and other policy measures to promote responsible automation of agriculture should be based on context-specific conditions, such as connectivity status, knowledge and skills challenges, adequacy of infrastructure and inequality in access. Even the biophysical, topographical and climatic conditions are important. For example, small machinery and even hand-held equipment can generate significant benefits for small-scale producers whose farms are located on rugged terrain.
Finally, the report addresses widespread concerns about the potential negative impact of labour-saving technological change in terms of job displacement and unemployment. Although it is concluded that these fears are exaggerated, it is recognized that agricultural automation can lead to unemployment where rural labor is abundant and wages are low.
In these labour-abundant contexts, policymakers should avoid subsidizing automation and focus instead on creating an enabling environment for its adoption, while providing social protection for low-skilled workers, which is more likely to lose their jobs during the transition.
The report defines farm automation as “the use of machinery and equipment in farm activities to improve diagnosis, decision-making, or enforcement, by reducing heavy farm work, or by improving the timeliness, and possibly the accuracy, of agricultural activities”.
Agri-food systems “encompass the full range of actors and their interrelated value-adding activities in the primary production of food and non-food agricultural products, as well as in storage, assembling, post-harvest handling, transport, processing, distribution, marketing, disposal and consumption of all food products, including those of non-agricultural origin”.
Source: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations