Agricultural economist Thomas Daum argues in a Science & Society article published on July 13, 2021, in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution that farm robots are no longer science fiction, and that they have created two possible extremes for the future of agriculture and its impacts on the environment. The first is a paradise in which fleets of little, intelligent robots farm in harmony with nature to produce a wide range of organic crops. The other one is a dystopia in which huge, tractor-like robots use heavy machinery and artificial chemicals to dominate the terrain.
He portrays the utopian scenario as a mosaic of lush green fields, streams, and untamed flora and wildlife, with fleets of little robots whirring across the fields, their whirrs mixing with bug chirps and birdsong. “It’s like a Garden of Eden,” says Thom Daum (@ThomDaum), a research fellow exploring agricultural development strategies at the University of Hohenheim in Germany. “Small robots have the potential to help conserve biodiversity and battle climate change in ways that have previously been impossible.”
“From a technological standpoint, both utopia and dystopia are achievable.” But if we don’t talk about it now, we might wind up in a dystopia without even realising it,” Daum argues.
Smaller robots, such as those envisaged in Daum’s utopian scenario, would be more practical for small-scale farmers, who could more readily afford them or share them via Uber-like services. In the dystopian future, he contends, the family farm will be less likely to survive: only giant manufacturers, he claims, will be able to manage the vast swathes of land and exorbitant expenses of large machinery.
While it may appear that the dystopia scenario is the most plausible, it isn’t the only option. “I believe paradise is possible,” Daum says. “It won’t be as simple as the dystopia, but it’s certainly doable.”