21 Dec 2018 --- Brexit may present a unique opportunity to propel “Agriculture 4.0” forward and place the UK in a strong position to redesign the sector as the nation’s exit date from the EU draws ever closer and political turmoil intensifies. Robotics could plug potentially lost labor post-Brexit in industries such as fruit picking, while Artificial Intelligence (AI) could enable better chemical applications, saving farmers money and protecting the environment. This is according to Dr. David Rose, a lecturer in human geography at the University of East Anglia (UEA), in the UK.
In a new journal article, Dr. Rose and Dr. Jason Chilvers, from UEA’s School of Environmental Sciences, argue that the concept of responsible innovation should underpin the so-called fourth agricultural revolution, ensuring that changes also provide social benefits and address potentially harmful side-effects.
The onset of Brexit could play a helping hand in forcing UK agriculture forward. “Brexit provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to redesign better agri-environment schemes that deliver for the environment, as the greening mechanism in the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was a disaster,” Dr. Rose tells FoodIngredientsFirst. “We have the chance to deliver in the UK a positive suite of agricultural policies that reward farmers for providing food and public goods.”
Clearing the house with new agricultural strategies may be one bright unintended consequence amid a wave of negative headlines around Brexit.
Just this week, Michael Gove, UK Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, highlighted that food prices will rise in the event of a “no-deal” Brexit as friction on the border and tariffs cause rising costs for the British public.
Gove, under questioning by MPs on the environmental audit committee, attempted to reassure farmers that there would be no mass slaughter of sheep in queues at UK ports such as Dover, because of delays created by a “no-deal” Brexit.
Earlier this month, UK food and drink exports increased by 1.8 percent to £16.4 billion (US$21 billion), in the lead up to Brexit, from January to September, compared to the same period in 2017, with exports of branded goods edging up, according to analysis from the Food and Drink Federation (FDF).
Investments in the future of UK agriculture have come thick and fast in recent times. The UK government has provided £90 million (US$114.1 million) of public money to transform food production to be at the forefront of global advanced sustainable agriculture. Many other countries are also prioritizing smart agri-tech.
This, combined with private investment from organizations including IBM, Barclays and Microsoft, means that so-called Agriculture 4.0 is underway, with technologies such as AI and robotics increasingly being used in farming.
The academics from the University of East Anglia (UEA), also note that responsible innovation that considers the broader impacts on society is essential to the smart farming that is integral to Agriculture 4.0, such as the use of AI technologies.
This comes to light as smart technologies are set to play a crucial role in addressing improved productivity and greater eco-efficiency and critics have suggested that consideration of social impacts is being sidelined.
Brexit: An uncertain future?
Dr. Rose notes some further factors that must be considered in sustainably intensifying agriculture. These include growing more food per unit of land while still providing environmental and social benefits.
“Firstly, a growing population may mean we have to grow more food. Secondly, land sparing models show that intensifying production on existing agricultural land can be better for biodiversity than a land sharing approach. Thirdly, potential loss of migrant labor post-Brexit might increase the need for more technologies to replicate manual tasks on farm such as fruit-picking. Fourthly, it might attract younger people to the farming industry as the current UK average farming age is 58,” says Dr. Rose.
All of these emergent technologies have uses in farming and may provide many benefits, he further explains: “For example, robotics could plug potentially lost labor post-Brexit in industries such as fruit picking, while robotics and AI could enable better chemical application, saving farmers money and protecting the environment. They could also attract new, younger farmers to an aging industry.”
In order to overcome problems in industry, according to Dr. Rose, it is imperative to “reduce pressure on agricultural production and, therefore, stop us from having to produce more food – waste less (food waste would be third in carbon emissions if it were a country), consume less (healthier diets, don't overeat) and eat a little less meat,” he says.
“We can make societal changes to reduce pressure on agricultural land. But, if we do need technology to increase food production, then this must be developed responsibility with input from farmers and wider society,” he notes.
Responsible innovation technology should be designed using public money and must be ethically responsible, claims Dr. Rose. “We must consider potential losers from technology, as well as winners, so it’s a moral obligation for policy-makers and innovators to consider it.”
Barriers to implementation
However, Dr. Rose and Dr. Chilvers warn that agri-tech could also have side-effects, bringing potential environmental, ethical and social costs.
“Some farmers might not wish to use new technology, as rural infrastructure may not allow for good enough quality internet broadband or phone signal. There are few regulatory frameworks to govern the use of AI and robotics on-farm, so this is a potential problem considering potential side-effects,” the researchers stress.
Writing in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, Dr. Rose notes: “In light of controversial agri-tech precedents, it is beyond doubt that smart farming is going to cause similar controversy. Robotics and AI could cause job losses or change the nature of farming in ways that are undesirable to some farmers. Others might be left behind by technological advancement, while wider society might not like how food is being produced.”
“We, therefore, encourage policy-makers, funders, technology companies and researchers to consider the views of both farming communities and wider society. We advocate that this new agricultural tech revolution, particularly the areas funded by public money, should be responsible, considering the winners, but particularly the potential losers of change.”
Dr. Rose adds: “This means better ways, both formal and informal, to include farmers and the public in decision-making, as well as advisors and other key stakeholders sharing their views. Wider society should be able to change the direction of travel and ask whether we want to go there. They should be able to question and contest whether benefits to productivity should supersede social, ethical, or environmental concerns, and be able to convince innovators to change design processes.”
Responsible innovation frameworks should be tested in practice to see if they can make tech more responsible. “More responsible tech saves controversy, such as that surrounding genetic modification, ensures farmers and the public are behind it and can help to deliver on the policy objectives,” he concludes.
The war on climate change will continue to be a hot topic in 2019 with growing calls to cut back on emissions and for greater efficiency in output. The food industry is likely to see more developments and research in these areas, which could partly come in the form of “Agriculture 4.0.”
In October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), issued its starkest warning yet on climate change and how big business contribute to the fight against climate change.