Agricultural Automation: What Works and What Shouldn’t Even Be Considered to Touch

Published by Guy Taylor on

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As I sit down to write this piece, I find myself torn between turning it into a rant or maintaining an objective perspective. Perhaps it will be a bit of both, as I’ve been grappling with the idea of technological and automated agricultural setups. While I recognize the merits of having a technological edge in agriculture, whether fully automated or partially, I’ve also become increasingly aware of the drawbacks, which have been bothering me for quite some time.

Let me start by acknowledging that the future is beginning to unnerve me. However, this doesn’t mean I can or should resist it. The relentless march of technology is an inevitable force, and we must adapt to it.

Throughout history, each generation has confronted technological challenges. Even in prehistoric times, there was probably a caveman who felt uneasy when someone invented something resembling an abacus. But progress is inexorable, and we must embrace it, even when it scares us.

During my upbringing in Zimbabwe, the tractors I worked with were mostly Massey Ferguson, my least favourite, Landini, and my all-time favourite, John Deere. These tractors required the driver to meticulously scan the field for rocks before plowing, seeding, or harvesting. Any missed rocks could damage the equipment, causing delays. But these challenges demanded physical effort, common sense, and constant vigilance, fostering a strong sense of responsibility and initiative. Mistakes were valuable lessons for future improvement.

Today, the agricultural landscape has undergone significant transformations. Innovations like drones for crop and herd monitoring and software tools like Performance Beef to process your livestock have revolutionized farming and ranching practices. These initiatives have undeniably improved efficiency and productivity, and I fully support them.

However, my concerns arise from the excessive automation seen in some modern tractors and combine harvesters. Features like plug points for boiling a kettle, onboard computers for social media browsing, or the ability to let the tractor handle tasks while the operator relaxes are, in my view, counterproductive. While automation can be helpful, it also introduces risks.

My main concern intensified when Cambridge University students unveiled plans for driverless tractors controllable with little more than an XBOX or Playstation controller. Their argument about freeing up farmers for other tasks is valid, but it overlooks the fact that machines can break down with little human intervention. Programming a tractor to perform tasks without human oversight is a recipe for disaster and increased costs, which might exceed the cost of employing a human worker. This level of automation may extend to combines, trucks, and even the morning and evening feeding of livestock.

Moreover, I fear that such automation will exacerbate poverty. Scientists and engineers may not have considered the broader human implications. Agricultural industries worldwide, not just in developed nations, provide crucial employment opportunities, from pickers to caretakers and equipment operators. The introduction of excessive automation could strain national and global economies, as well as social structures, which rely on a healthy job market. In this case, the cons far outweigh the pros.

As for health and safety concerns, they largely come down to common sense, which should not be underestimated.

To be clear, I’m not advocating against all forms of automation. Some innovations are undeniably valuable, as I mentioned earlier. However, I’m deeply concerned about the future of agriculture if we allow unchecked automation to continue. Striking a healthy balance between automation and traditional methods is essentialβ€”for the sake of agriculture and, more importantly, humanity. Without sustainable agriculture, our future is in peril.

Categories: Agriculture


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