Farm Machinery Must Support Sustainable Agriculture
Mechanization has come a long way, Kienzle explained, but the last 15 years have brought about dramatic improvements, including optimized design, improved digital data management and more. These improvements have also lowered costs, giving small-scale farmers increased access to autonomous and semi-autonomous technologies.
“Farm machines have revolutionized agriculture and reduced drudgery of millions of farm families and workers, but the machinery of tomorrow will have to do more than that,” Kienzle says. “It will also have to contribute to agriculture that is environmentally sustainable. Farm machinery and sustainable agriculture must evolve together.”
This is a key point. The global food crisis not only requires farms to produce enough food to feed more than 10 billion people by 2050, but it also means increasing food production by approximately 40 percent compared to 2012. Family farmers already supply 80 percent of the world’s food.
The Impacts of the Global Food Crisis
The task of producing more food to meet the growing demand must be accomplished sustainably, with farmers considering how best to manage scarce resources. The result of failing to sustainably maximize food production is two-fold: If the status quo continues, there will be more than 840 million hungry people by 2030 and fewer available resources with which to address the problem.
“The covid-19 pandemic is intensifying the vulnerabilities and inadequacies of global food systems,” Kienzle says. “Covid-19 has added additional pressure and poses a serious threat to food security. It is estimated that as many as 130 million will be added to the total number of hungry people in 2020.”
Beyond having enough food, Kienzle explains, the food must also be healthy. Producing affordable, nutritious food is already a major problem. Today, more than 2 billion people cannot sufficiently or consistently access safe, nutritious food, and 3 billion people cannot afford the cost of a healthy diet. Some parts of the world experience these impacts more than others.
“If recent trends persist, the distribution of hunger in the world would change substantially, making Africa the region with the highest number of undernourished people,” Kienzle says. “Innovation creates global solutions.”
When there is collaboration between the public and private sectors, entrepreneurs and civil society, he adds, there is an opportunity to create the best possible solutions for the world’s biggest challenges.
Holistic Solutions are the Product of Innovation and Education
“Innovation is key to feed the growing population and face the challenges of climate change,” he adds. “It can be instrumental for early and timely planting, especially when there are labor shortages, and it can help prevent food loss when harvesting.
“Due to climate change effects, the planting season is shorter, and the dry spells are more frequent today,” Kienzle continues, “we have scarce natural resources, and through the use of appropriate equipment, innovation and robotics can contribute to the precise use of resources, in particular, inputs such as fertilizer, seeds and pesticides, in this way avoiding overuse and waste.”
In order for agricultural robots and other advancing technologies to make a difference, they need to be adopted and used in farms around the world. FAO is helping to do this now. The organization’s Hand-in-Hand is an “evidence-based, country-led and country-owned initiative to accelerate agricultural transformation and sustainable rural development to eradicate poverty and end hunger and all forms of malnutrition.”
Conservation agriculture practices can be introduced in other parts of the world as well. Kienzle draws attention to dust bowls that have been created through wind erosion in countries like Turkey, Russia, the United States and Germany. When fertile topsoil is pulverized as a result of heavy tillage, it also becomes more prone to water erosion. The water sweeps the soil into the sea, while creating gullies on land. In turn, this upsets the region’s ability to farm.
“In the oceans, it takes more than a thousand years to build one millimeter of fertile topsoil,” Kienzle says. “Soils are, therefore, considered a non-renewable resource. Farm machinery needs to be lean precise and efficient in order to minimize the impact on the soil and landscape.”
“FAO aims to promote agricultural knowledge and practices and improve the sustainability and resilience of farming systems of smallholder farmers through ecosystem-based approaches,” Kienzle says, noting that this work cannot be accomplished alone.
Global Problems Require a Collaborative Approach
This effort directly contradicts a common worry within the agricultural industry: Robots will replace human labor. Kienzle says this fear is unfounded. Instead, robots create new and better jobs along the value supply chain. Ultimately, the move toward mechanization has the potential to bring new talent into the industry. Kienzle sees the possibilities.
“While agricultural robots are still in their early stages, there are very clear indications of their potential,” he says. “The challenges ahead are not only technical, but also socioeconomic, in particular, with regard to capacity building and the need to understand the principles and technologies involved.”
Through their many programs, FAO is dedicated to confronting the farming, sustainability and food scarcity obstacles that threaten to become insurmountable in the years ahead. Those who choose to join this fight will have a powerful tool at their disposal.
The Path to Adoption for Agricultural Robotics
Farmers often worry about losing their jobs, Waksman says, but closed borders created limited access to markets and a worker scarcity that caused the opposite problem. In the future, machines can be employed to pick up the slack.
“Robots are always a symbol of the ultimate age of technology,” Waksman says. “Between machinery and manpower, I believe that the nations with robots are able to maintain new diversity of production under acceptable economic conditions.”
The next generation of agricultural robots is also being developed to address some of the adoption-related hurdles the current generation experiences. Waksman says that robots must be adapted to the regulatory content so that they may eventually be able to work alone in fields, and farmers may even need to restructure their fields in order to accommodate the machines.
He also believes that these robots require sophisticated software that will enable them to process data from cameras and sensors. There will likely be a learning curve for operators as they learn to use these increasingly complex technologies. The next generations of robots, however, can make up for certain deficiencies with creative solutions.
“Right now, robots are more the tortoise than the hare,” Waksman says. “They move slower, but they are able to work longer. Some work throughout the night, which makes up for their slower pace.”
Advancing Technology Suppliers Can Support Adoption
Picking up where Kienzle left off, Waksman discussed the ways that advancing technology suppliers can capitalize on a robot’s potential. He shared his perspective about how these suppliers can work to bring their designs and prototypes to market.
Many farmers may be on board with the idea of agricultural robots, but innovators that want to attract early adopters must go above and beyond. This means further testing, demonstrations and a thorough understanding of what prevents farmers from buying in right away.
“Technical progress must work together with promotion, testing, demonstration, and insertion efforts in the digital world of farms,” Waksman explains. “Demonstrations help to convince farmers of the benefits of robots. They also ensure that the equipment works properly and that the sensors, drone imagery and other components are effective.”