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Social considerations

Article by Dr David Rose outlining the aspects of precision and digital technology that must be borne in mind when considering social sustainability.
Photograph of a combine harvesting and grain being delivered directly to a trailer being pulled by a tractor
© EIT Food

Adopting precision farming has the potential to create wide ranging social impacts, from the agricultural workforce to food security. In this step we’ll explore these potential positive and negative impacts on social sustainability in further detail.

(This is an edited version of a blog post by Dr David Rose, (University of Reading) which first appeared on the CHAP blog).

Workforce and working conditions

Precision farming can lead to the automation of repetitive tasks, reducing the need for some jobs but it doesn’t replace humans fully and creates demand for highly skilled work [1]. But what are the social risks of technological change in farming and do automation benefits actually occur in practice? There are also practical difficulties with implementing some of these new technologies. The digital skills needed to operate and interpret new gadgets are not simple to learn, although a service model of delivery, where companies fly drones and monitor robots, can address this (however, data ownership is an important consideration here – we’ll discuss this below). This article from PrecisionAg lists the ten skills precision agriculturalists of the future will need. And of course, the digital infrastructure – namely, broadband – is currently not good enough in many rural areas to allow machines to talk to each other in the field or to send collected data [2].

Ethical implications of the technology revolution have also been raised, including the impact on the farm workforce and their physical and mental health [3]. While new technologies may attract different workers into farming, including a younger audience equipped to design, use, and repair them, traditional farm workers may be displaced if they can’t adapt to new conditions. In some sectors, where there is a reliance on seasonal migrant labour, replacement or supplementing this labour with technology may be no bad thing, but some people are going to lose out [4,5].

How will farmers be affected? Work has also been done that explores how farmers feel about new technologies which require them to spend more time in the office, rather than out in the field. For some, this might improve their lifestyle, potentially freeing up more time to spend with family and reducing the physical burden of the job. For others, however, it will cause a disconnection from the land and they will enjoy their role less [6].

Data

Precision farming requires large amounts of data to be collected. Who owns this data? What might it be used for? In what ways might farmers ‘lose’ from this?

Data has been a significant area of interest in research. In a survey of 1000 Australian farmers, 74% didn’t know much at all about the terms and conditions relating to data collection by service providers (from drones, sensors etc.) and only 24% said they would be happy if companies had direct access to their farm data [7]. Also, 67% of farmers said they would not be happy if service providers used such data to make profits and 56% said they didn’t trust them to keep their data safe [8].

Five key areas of concern about data were identified:

  • a lack of transparency

  • data ownership

  • data security

  • inequality of bargaining power

  • unevenness of benefit-sharing between farmers.

Various solutions have been suggested to improve transparency of data sharing, including Blockchain, but this is an area where legislation or clear guidelines will be needed so that increased data collection works for all farmers, and not just for powerful companies who can use it to improve research and development and targeting of products [9].

Visit the John Deere operations center and watch the short films of farmers talking about their experiences and the social benefits of using the technology.

What do you think?

Policy

It would be unwise to think that the benefits of the technology revolution in farming are going to be spread evenly among practitioners [10]. Concerns have been raised that bigger, powerful companies may reap most of the benefits of this revolution. The farmers that have greater adaptive capacity to change, either because of better cashflows, education, or advisory networks, are likely to be better placed to harness rewards, while smaller farmers with less opportunity to invest in new technology, and less social capital to be assisted in doing so, may fall behind. There will be winners and losers of the technology revolution and policy-makers should be thinking about who may lose out so that help can be provided [11]. It’s important to note that legal restrictions, for example on the use of drones or autonomous robots, may render some technologies practically unusable in a real-world setting. (How drone rules affect farmers).

There are also concerns around impact on, for example, tax incentives to use less. ‘Policy makers targeting pollution reductions from agriculture should take into account the increasing use of precision agriculture techniques and their varying effects on agro-environmental policy’ [12].

The views of all those affected by innovation should be listened to – not just the most innovative farmers, or the most disruptive tech providers. We must anticipate all the consequences of new technologies, both good and bad [13]. And we should remember that innovation is not just technological.

Environmental benefits

We’ll come back to environmental benefits in more detail later this week, however precision farming can support environmental sustainability and this has social and societal benefits.

For example, precision farming can lead to a reduction in the use of pesticides and herbicides, as well as supporting the maintenance and aesthetic look of the countryside [14]. The use of innovative agri-tech and precision farming could also be a useful way to communicate the concept of sustainability to the public through, for example, highlighting decreasing pesticide use and impacts on crop yields and wildlife [15], raising awareness of how agriculture can support environmental sustainability [5] and lead to enhanced food security though digital traceability [16].

The technology revolution referred to in this Step is also sometimes known as ‘the fourth agricultural revolution’. This term is often used interchangeably with ‘smart farming’, ‘precision agriculture’ and ‘digital agriculture’ and is generally seen in a positive light as the ‘solution’ to the need to increase productivity and reduce agriculture’s negative impact on the environment.

How might companies use the data collected by farmers to target their marketing?

© EIT Food
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Innovation in Arable Farming: Technologies for Sustainable Farming Systems

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