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Evaluating Social Benefits of Precision Farming

Learn the factors that come into play when evaluating the social benefits of innovative technologies.

As you saw in previous Steps the social impacts of precision farming and the adoption of innovative agri-tech can be wide-ranging, from impacts on the environment through ecosystem services to the need for upskilling in the agricultural workforce and advances in food security [1]. In this Step, we’ll consider some of the ways in which the social impact could be measured or evaluated. Some of these measurements may be qualitative rather than quantitative; not necessarily involving collecting and analysing data. We’ll list them here and then consider how these could be balanced within an ethical framework for food production.

Upskilling the Agricultural Workforce

The adoption of new, digital technologies requires the workforce to develop two new ‘skill sets’; i) skills specific to using the technology itself and ii) more general skills relevant to working more with precision farming.

Skills specific to using precision farming technology include:

  • Operating specific pieces of equipment and technology such as tractor guidance systems, variable rate application systems and sensors [2].
  • Computer and digital literacy skills (eg, effective storage and retrieval of data) [3].
  • Interpreting data (eg, using the data generated from yield sensors or satellite imagery to build a yield map or vegetation index in order to support decision making) [4].
  • Some understanding of legal or regulatory frameworks relating to precision farming, (eg, rules around drone use and data protection) [5].

These new skills and data provide farmers with enhanced decision-making capabilities and digital agriculture can move farming from ‘hindsight’ to ‘foresight’ [6]. However, this needs to be balanced with the impact on existing roles and job security within the workforce.

Food Security

Food security and feeding a growing global population are increasingly important [7]. Precision farming can support food security by, for example:

  • Enabling more food to be grown on land already used for farming and increasing or maintaining yields with reduced inputs [8].
  • Supporting yield prediction, so areas with potentially poor harvests could be identified [9].
  • Collecting data to analyse trends in crop production [10].

Environmental Factors

Environmental benefits can also be social benefits as they benefit society as a whole, and we could consider a wide range of impacts that precision farming could have. For example:

  • Measuring changes in the use of pesticides [11].
  • Measuring greenhouse gas emissions [12]
  • Measuring and recording changes to the physical and natural landscape that are visible to society as a whole, such as changes in plant and animal biodiversity [13].

Business and Financial Factors

Financial sustainability is integral to sustainable farming and impacts on social sustainability. Financial and business factors include:

  • The penalties, taxes and subsidies associated with farming (eg, taxes on pesticides and herbicides and subsidies to support environmentally sustainable farming) and how precision farming could mitigate or support them [8,14].
  • Employment and unemployment, changes in the agricultural workforce [15].
  • Changes in prices and cost for inputs (eg, pesticides, fertilisers) and market fluctuations for cereal prices.
  • Cost savings that precision farming could enable, such as reduction in fuel and fertiliser use [16,17].
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Innovation in Arable Farming: Technologies for Sustainable Farming Systems

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