Sustainable Intensification

Ever since Karel Capek coined the word in 1920, humans have been fascinated by robots; by their endless possibilities, as much as by our nagging fear that they might one day turn against us. Robot was derived from the Czech word for drudgery, serfdom, or forced labour. In Capek’s play R.U.R. the robots rebelled, and killed all the humans. If popular culture since then has taught us anything, it is that someday mankind must face and destroy the growing robot menace.

So when a recent Guardian headline declared that Robot farmers are the future of agriculture, it conjured up images of pristine and highly-productive plots lovingly tended by super intelligent machines that never tire, twinge or ache from their extended toils.

Sadly, the story behind the headline is far more mundane, and doesn’t presage an end to the back-breaking drudgery that is 80% of the typical allotmenteer’s time down on the plot. The government’s Policy Paper, UK Strategy for Agricultural Technologies states:

Agricultural science and technology is rapidly becoming one of the world’s fastest growing and exciting markets. It is driven by global changes: a rising population, rapid development of emerging economies with western lifestyle aspirations and growing geopolitical instability around shortages of land, water and energy

The government is committing £160M over 5 years to the agri-tech industry, to develop new technologies in order to achieve a “sustainable intensification” of agriculture in the face of these global challenges. It is an ambitious proposal that seeks to transform the way that food is grown in the future. But it assumes that the only way to deal with the food production challenges of the future is with more science, more technology, more automation, and more genetic manipulation. The current agri-tech landscape is already a desert of monoculture, large scale arable enterprises, and concentrated animal feeding operations. To suggest that the answer to the problems is more of the same may be missing the wood for the trees. In energy input.terms alone, sustainable intensification is verging on the oxymoronic.

This is the kind of logic that spins the chemical extinction of bees as an exciting commercial opportunity because, y’know, we could just invent some drone insects to replace them as pollinators.

Sure, wIth increased automation and processing power, even the dullest and most repetitive tasks can be delegated to machines. But if soils are already depleted because of excessive chemical inputs, and eroding at a rapid rate, any further intensification of production could prove challenging at best. The implications for human employment in this brave new agri-tech world could also be dire.

Despite all this I’m still hopeful that, when the iFarmbot 3000 is launched in 2050, we will finally be able to sit back, relax, and enjoy the beautifully synthetic bio-engineered allotments, without having to worry about being hunted down and terminated by the ruthless inspection bots.

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