Scientific Foresight (STOA) By / August 25, 2016

Will robots change the face of agriculture and food production?

Written by Lieve Van Woensel with Sarah McCormack, A study on the ‘Ethics of Cyber-Physical Systems’ has recently been published…

Shutterstock / Kletr
Drone above the agricultural field
Shutterstock / Kletr

Written by Lieve Van Woensel with Sarah McCormack,

A study on the ‘Ethics of Cyber-Physical Systems’ has recently been published by the Science and Technology Options Assessment (STOA) Panel. The study examined seven key areas, where cyber-physical systems (CPS) will have a significant impact. CPS are technical systems where networked computers and robots interact with the physical world. They are found in a wide range of services and applications. As their applications are also increasing in the area of agriculture and food production, due to the continuous development of these technologies, we have to examine what impact they will have. This blog post was prepared using information from a technical briefing paper written for the study by Professor Eldert J. van Henten (Wageningen University, The Netherlands) and Christien Enzing (Technopolis Group, The Netherlands).

How will robots change agriculture and food production?

Things will certainly change with the further introduction of CPS in these fields. Better sensors will increase safety in food production. This will be through their ability to more accurately test for diseases and the freshness of products. Using CPS to better test the food for possible issues will help to minimise risks for consumers. The increased use of autonomous machines in food production will also reduce the risk of contamination from humans, thus increasing the safety of the products. With the future introduction of robots in agriculture we may also see a change in the relationship between farmers and their animals. If robots keep replacing humans, as we have seen through the introduction of milking machines, what impact will this have on the ethics of livestock husbandry?

How will this impact the environment?

Through increased use of CPS in agriculture, we can expect to see a change in the environment for the better. CPS will be able to reduce the sheer size of the machines that are currently used in agriculture, leading to more lightweight machines. This in turn will help to stop the soil compaction which is currently exacerbated by the use of existing machines. Precision farming will also benefit from the use of vital data gathered by CPS, such as drones, sensors and other farming machines. Drones for example can be used to check the health of plants, which will lead to targeted insecticide use. CPS will further help the environment through the reduction of energy, water and fertiliser usage, helping to reduce emissions.

How will this affect jobs?

CPS will also make many tasks less dangerous and unhealthy, and will improve the overall safety of workers. Currently we are witnessing a large decline in the number of people, in particular youths, involved in agriculture. Since 1990 in the Netherlands, for example, the percentage of people employed in agriculture has plummeted from 30% to 2.6%. The introduction of these systems may help to attract young people back into the sector by improving the daily life quality. Job loses, however, will inevitably occur with the further implementation of CPS in agriculture, as they replace low and semi-skilled labour. CPS will be able to effectively replace their human counterparts. Yet, despite this, it is expected that an equal number of new roles, requiring different skills, will emerge, such as agricultural robot engineers.

Who will be responsible for safety and what impact will there be on privacy?

With the introduction of more autonomous machines working alongside humans, we need to keep in mind that questions of responsibility will arise. In agriculture, if harm comes to animals, plants or even humans, as a result of CPS, who will be at fault and who will be held accountable? How can we keep individuals safe around these automated machines? Also the introduction of CPS into food production can possibly manifest itself in the development of smart packaging that can communicate with your fridge, alerting you when you are running low on products. Will this infringe upon our privacy? What if the packaging starts to give you advice on your eating habits? Is this ethically correct?

What next?

We can expect to see changes to the agricultural sector over the coming years as more CPS are introduced and developed. The changes are expected to be positive and will assist rather than hinder farmers. However, we will still need to take into account the possible negative impacts and ensure that adequate legislation is introduced to protect our privacy, safety and environment to make sure that we all benefit from these new technologies.

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