Mon 29 Nov 2021

Utopia or dystopia? How Agriculture 4.0 will shape the future of Scottish farming

“…this tractor does two things - it turns the land and turns us off the land. There is little difference between this tractor and a tank. The people are driven, intimidated, hurt by both.”

“So easy that the wonder goes out of the work, so efficient that the wonder goes out of the land and the working of it, and with the wonder the deep understanding and the relation.”

John Steinbeck wrote these words in his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Grapes of Wrath in 1939. At the time a masterpiece of realist fiction, Steinbeck’s take on man’s interrelationship with land, and with technology, has now become deeply prophetic.

It may feel like we are entering a new era of agriculture. Yet how we grow crops and nurture livestock in the context of a global climate emergency has parallels with Steinbeck’s world. He paints a picture of similar economic and ecological tensions as his protagonist tackles 1930s economic gloom against the backdrop of prolonged, severe droughts known as The Dustbowl, which lasted six years.

It is surely instructive to read Steinbeck’s “truth telling” (when Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, his position as a “social truth teller” was lauded by judges) in today’s context.

In 1930s America, tractors forced immigrant workers away from jobs on farmland; and with the turning technological tide, he claims understanding of the ecology and nature of the land disappeared, too.

Aren’t there parallels with today’s farming crisis?

Is Agriculture 4.0 not another wave of ‘tractors’ rolling into fields and farms, displacing more humans with efficient alternatives indifferent to their ecological impact?

Agriculture and farming are under immense scrutiny as global issues, ranging from food poverty to the climate crisis, mount pressure on the sector to evolve. Some 80% of Scotland’s land mass is under agricultural production, so the stakes are high for the whole nation, not just the farming community.

When a 2018 Oliver Wyman report coined the term ‘Agriculture 4.0’, increased use of technology, particularly robots, were framed as the solution to a number of these issues.

A recent paper by University of Hohenheim agricultural economist Thomas Daum explores two alternative futures for the industry, based on how well technology is assimilated into agriculture.

Daum imagines both the utopian and dystopian outcomes of change in an article published in Trends in Ecology & Evolution. He lays out the twin vision to pose how a technological revolution could shape agriculture’s future. He even predicts that entire farms will be run by robots.

Perhaps Scottish farming is at a similar crossroads.

We see before us increasing automation, standardisation and consolidation. Yet the industry is also both duty-bound and economically compelled to improve its impact on the environment. Technology and ecology will collide.

Daum’s utopia sees swathes of small robots working 24/7 on small to medium-sized farms to provide a diverse array of crops that naturally integrate into the surrounding environment. He believes that using these small robots could conserve biodiversity and combat climate change in ways that have been impossible so far.

The dystopian alternative envisages large, less sophisticated robots that bulldoze land, spray pesticides and fertilize with ever increasing intensity and scale. These robots would further cement modern agricultural practices, failing to pay heed to the ecological demands of a planet on the brink of failure.

Which way is Scotland to fall? Daum sees either vision as within reach and expects that the future depends largely on decisions industry and its stakeholders take now.

In Scotland, we already know that future government subsidies will be linked to environmental goals. And young farmers overwhelmingly support the notion of integrating environmental objectives into economic support.

Agriculture and associated land use is the second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Scotland[1] but its scale also offers the possibility of natural reductions to its carbon footprint.

A report by the RSBP Scotland points to studies conducted by The Tyndall Centre and Uppsala University, showing a balance between sequestration, carbon abatement and emissions can be struck. Indeed, it boldly claims: “Sequestration in the rural environment can significantly outweigh emissions from farming and the rural environment, and help to ensure Scotland can achieve a net zero target for all emissions by 2050 at the latest.”

So – natural solutions combined with automated, technological ones, are a realistic (utopian?) goal.

The problem is, many of the routes to achieving net zero are not yet fully explored. Concepts like an ‘emissions floor’ (the level to which emissions can fall without compromising food production); a circular agricultural economy (where farmers recycle the valuable nutrients in farm manures, slurry and food waste back onto the land); and a Nitrogen Balance Sheet (which tracks emissions from fertiliser and other sources of nitrous oxide) are still on the periphery of an industry focused on coping with near-term issues threatening its survival.

The Scottish Government’s Agriculture Champions’ strategy, now three years old, is a ruthless document about the future of the Scottish farming sector. Farmers should become more progressive and entrepreneurial; adopt the mindset of a businessperson; keep pace with change; work collaboratively; be less dependent on subsidies; and be more cognisant of the harsh commercial realities of the sector.

Does this vision lack the ecological nuance we now need? After all, it was produced pre-pandemic and before COP26 and other events brought real urgency to the climate debate. You could argue it lacked what Steinbeck called “relation” to the land. Surely a greater assimilation between automation, production and the environment is needed.

In a Scottish utopia, perhaps robots would create a higher and more diverse crop yield with minimal environmental impact. Perhaps the farmer would have a more profitable piece of land and have greater time to focus on the commercial viability of the farm, as required by the 2018 strategy. Perhaps new technology will help to manage the Nitrogen balance sheet and monitor the emissions floor. Perhaps Scotland would be a place where land, farmer, animal and technology co-exist to serve the nation holistically.

Whatever the final picture, many farmers feel distanced from these long-term issues. They have urgent, life-changing challenges to handle that have little to do with creating agricultural and environmental harmony.

Yet many know that change is coming. Steinbeck always tried to reflect truthfully on the world he saw in front of him. So, too, must we try to look honestly at how Scottish agriculture can tread this delicate path between environmental conservation and the preservation of a much-needed but rarely treasured industry.


First published by Scottish Farmer. 

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