Agriculture, Robots and Ecology – The views of José Rafael Silva (Agroinsider)

Agriculture, Robots and Ecology

Modern societies face a challenge that I would label as difficult but at the same time inspiring as they will have to increase food production and simultaneously reduce impacts, namely in the:

  • i) reduction of the diffusive pollution;
  • ii) reduction of fertilizers and pesticides applications (“European Farm to Fork”);
  • iii) reduction of waste (United Nations Sustainable Development Goals);
  • iv) promotion of climate neutrality (“European Green Deal”); and
  • v) preservation of landscape and biodiversity (new European CAP objectives).

Relatively recently, society in general simply valued the quantity and price of food. It has only recently started to consider aspects such as safety, quality and nutritional value and, nowadays, it starts to question itself about food sustainability production.

At European level, the new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and other political agreements are clear in their demand for safe but sustainable food. In this way, society begins to realize that after all foods life does not start in the supermarket, but that there is a whole process that precedes this moment and that, inevitably, leaves a greater or lesser trail, that is, two apples apparently equal in food safety, quality and nutritional value can both present entirely different sustainability tracks.

Given the above, food traceability processes cannot start with the apple that leaves the tree and enters in the supermarket refrigerator, but rather with the landscape and biodiversity that the apple orchard may have affected when it was installed and managed; in the water and soil that the orchard may have contaminated during its management; and in the economic and social dimension that the orchard may have impacted in terms of human and local development.

The technological evolution of recent years in agriculture has normally centered its evolution on the machine and because of that it is normal to see the agricultural landscape structured in order to meet the requirements of the machine and not the plants. The number of plants per row or the width between rows of plants are predetermined so that it is easy for the machine to sow, to plant, to treat or to harvest. It can be said that technologically today’s society is unable to deal with the complexity of nature and as such simplifies, homogenizes and standardizes in order to make it easier to build the technology that we have the capacity to build in the current state of societal and technological development.

We can then say that the current technological capacity in agriculture limits the ecology because the agricultural landscape is designed by current machinery. As long as we do not have the capacity to build another type of machinery, we will have difficulty doing it differently.

All of this happens and is accepted because we don’t have people to work in the fields and we all know that we have to feed the world. However, we have to start to think how to change this paradigm and how to look at the technology that we’re constructing now, because the present options will be those that will prevail in the very near future. Therefore, it’s important to ask which agriculture technologies should we favor in the 2050 horizon? Those that are emerging at a dizzying speed where the only thing that changes is whether the tractor is autonomous or not, such as car mobility? Or one where we rethink the way to do agriculture and try to create the technological foundations that will help us to practice an eco-friendly agriculture?

One of the most viable solutions to solve this great and stimulating challenge will surely be the robotization of agriculture. Robots and ecology? Yes! What kind of robots? Robots to do what agricultural machinery do today? No! Robots capable of climbing an apple tree and picking apples like a human would? Yes! In the latter case: i) the existence of small and uniform apple trees is no longer justified in order to facilitate the mechanization of harvesting; ii) it is no longer justified to use herbicides as we may have sheep under the apple trees eating the weeds in the orchard as long as the apple trees are taller than the sheep; iii) it is no longer justified to have only apple trees as we may have apple trees mixed with olive trees, with holm oaks, with pear trees…; iv) if we can mix different species, we will be able to exploit the synergies that exist between them in order to fight diseases and pests and reduce the use of pesticides; v) yes we can…

If agricultural technology is limited and thinking about homogeneity, we will perpetuate the current problems and the conflict between nature and agriculture will never end. However, if the technology of the near future is designed for diversity it will surely provide the foundations for a sustainable, circular and regenerative agriculture.

Instead of opposing high tech to nature-based production, we have to explore how current and future farming technologies can enable and support truly ecology-based farming systems and smart robots can play a very important role on this.

Agroinsider believe that robots would need some guidance (“from above”) to proceed in the ground with their specific tasks taking care of food and nature and because of that is already working with Earth Observation satellites to map present agriculture sustainability and helping consequently companies to produce sustainable food according to the United Nations SDGs requirements.

As you can see, the challenge is attractive and will surely be achievable in the short and medium term, assuming a technological paradigm shift and a bioeconomy that emerges in view of the sustainability goals of an entire human activity on a planet that shelters us and that we must take care of.


José Rafael Marques da Silva for The Porto Protocol Foundation


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