Advancing technologies have officially made their way to the farm. From weeding robots and GPS-equipped tractors to milking robots and drones, automation is taking some of agriculture’s dirtiest and most dangerous jobs.
These are big changes, and not everyone is prepared for this level of industry disruption. While it can be tempting to robot bash and turn to familiar practices, those who embrace technology are positioned to get ahead. Daniel Azevedo, Director Commodities, Trade and Technology at COPA COGECA, shares some ways farmers can focus on the positives and achieve more.
Question: What are some of the trends you’re seeing with respect to farming robots?
Azevedo: In the last few years, there have been quite a few breakthroughs. A lot of these technologies have come down in price, making them more accessible. In the 1970s, you had access to GPS, and then things started automating in the 80s and 90s. Now, you see big investments in drones, user data, sensors and satellites.
There are several robots that are already being used, including feeding robots for livestock, cleaning robots, milking robots. There have been huge investments in automated tractors, and the organic sector is very interested in weeding robots to remove weeds from the fields without using products. Agri-Cooperatives also play an important role in the uptake of robots by helping farmers to share costs of investment, providing technical assistance and knowledge, and helping to enforce data rights.
Question: What is the prevailing perception of robots on the farm?
Azevedo: Everyone expects farmers to be against technology, but this is not true. Those who are using robots have found them to be quite useful. A lot of farmers are experiencing labor shortages, and these technologies are reducing those shortages. Agriculture is a difficult profession. Some of the working conditions are challenging. Robots can replace some of these routine tasks that are easy to automate, improve safety and help farmers to deliver by freeing them to do more important jobs.
Question: What is robot bashing, and what do farmers need to keep in mind to avoid doing it?
Azevedo: Robot bashing is the fear that robots will replace farmers. But the farmer is the one that is still controlling every type of decision on the farm. The robot is there to replace the tasks that can be done more efficiently by an automated system. Even when integrating artificial intelligence or machine learning, the farmer is still in charge of making the decisions. He will still have to work on the farm. He still has many other tasks he will be doing. He will change his job profile, but he is the one who is in the driver seat of this decision.
Question: Why do farmers object to these technologies?
Azevedo: One of the key reasons that farmers don’t use robots is they question whether the technology will deliver on the investment they’ve made. Will they have a return? Will that return be sufficient? And I think that’s always important. The technology must deliver on the investment the farmer has made because the farmer is taking the risk. Some new technologies have not proven themselves, so farmers are reluctant. There’s also the fear that using technology means taking away jobs.
Question: How can farmers avoid robot bashing and embrace these emerging technologies?
Azevedo: When you think about it, the amount of cutting-edge technology that was used to bring delicious and nutritious food to your plate is unbelievable. As the industry becomes increasingly high-tech, farmers can see this as a way to attract new talent. It is very positive that robots can help to improve output and at same time, reduce some of the impact on the environment. Through data tracking, farmers can use the right amount of inputs and apply them more precisely.
When you have technology, you can program your tasks. This allows farmers to have more flexibility to program their work and have more time for their families. Those who use milking robots, for example, report that they don’t have to wake up at 5 in the morning to milk the cows because they have an automated system. Of course, they need to control the system, but they can have breakfast with their kids before they do to school. Some farmers say that they have come to rely on these systems so much, they have forgotten to check on the animals.
Because more farmers around the world are using these systems, the ones who don’t use new technologies will stay behind. It’s important that farmers use the technologies to compete in the world but also to deliver on the new framework outlined in initiatives like the New Green Deal. Access to technology was one of the factors that helped European farmers to reduce emissions by 25 percent since 1990, while at the same time improving productivity by 20 percent. Technology is important for farmers to compete around the world, but also to deliver on what our citizens are asking from them.
"How to go from "robot bashing" to the "robot haushing", for the end consumer?
Follow the Round Table at FIRA 2020, December 8th, with:
- Daniel Azevedo, Director Commodities, Trade and Technology at COPA COGECA
- Christophe BONNO,Groupement Les Mousquetaires- Intermarché, Director of Agricultural Institutional Relations
- Ole GREEN, Founder & CEO of AGROINTELLI Professor at Aarhus University, Dept. of AgroEcology