Dr Naudé Malan, senior lecturer in development studies at the University of Johannesburg believes the 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR) has the potential to intensify the extractive nature of conventional farming. The founder of iZindaba Zokudla, a Soweto based farmers’ lab says it also holds great potential to contribute to sustainability in the sector.
Computers today talk to each other and make decision amongst themselves. This creates great self-regulating systems that have great implications for agriculture. Would computers be able to respond to adverse weather? Can farms be totally controlled by robots?
Today agriculture, perhaps more than any other economic sector, is confronted with its ecological impact. This will affect how we will adapt and configure 4IR technologies. To understand this, we have to go back once again to the green revolution that preceded the 4IR and which in many respects, is a mere extension of it.
The green revolution was effective because we were able to control water, soil, pests, fertility, in fact, all agricultural activities through mechanisation and chemicals. This includes the processing and packaging of foods. This has created “industrial” agriculture.
The same thing is happening with the 4IR. The only reason robots and total control over the farm is possible is because the 4IR have reduced the world to a manageable and controllable set of features. This creates the illusion that the robots are autonomous – and the further illusion of autonomous food production. These systems can only operate in a highly controlled environment. However, the reach of the 4IR is vast, and perpetuates the “Anthropocene” illusion that computers are independent of the original “activate” command given by humans.
The 4IR thrives in contexts where everything on the farm can be controlled, especially in indoor systems. Computers that control water flows and irrigation can respond to a second computer planting seeds. Only the bare minimum of resources will be used and here we see the sustainability claims of the 4IR emerging.
The 4IR has the potential to intensify the extractive nature of conventional farming.
Green revolution agriculture is notorious for waste. Fertiliser in particular ends up in waterways. The sustainability claims of the 4IR relate to the precision use of the bare minimum of resources. This leaves the underlying paradigm of extractive agriculture intact. The great question however, is how will a system like the 4IR, which depends on the regulation and reduction of nature to controllable factors, fare in confronting the complexity of agro-ecology, biodiversity and sustainability?
The 4IR has the potential to intensify the extractive nature of conventional farming. Many engineers and designers who dabble in the 4IR are not agriculturalists, and they unreflectively take up its erroneously simplified and linear view of nature and production. A lot of first generation 4IR, particularly those driven by commerce and profit, will intensify these negative impacts.
Robots, AI must do better
4IR must do better to be relevant to the future of agriculture. Agro-ecology is a highly scientific approach to agriculture that is able to surpass the linear approaches underlying much of agricultural research and development. 4IR can engage with a sustainable and regenerative agriculture and eclipse its own technological confinement and embrace human and biological systems.
The 4IR holds great potential to contribute to sustainability. The ability to control the environment through the utilisation of data has a natural affinity to agro-ecological complexity. Regenerative production systems builds upon interlocking processes where waste becomes resources. The 4IR can enable computers to make adjustments so wastes are optimally re-purposed (by another machine) to become a resource for another crop. The precision of precision farming can become the data for the management of a complex system of production that can enhance the functioning of ecosystems. This is a true challenge and the calculation and application of minute quantities of chemical fertilizer pales in comparison to the management of complex interactions between plants, bacteria and micro-organisms and animals.
Can it create a labour intensive agriculture that delivers jobs?
The greatest benefits will emerge from the 4IR if we govern it effectively. Engineers will succumb to the illusion that precision agriculture is “progress”. We need to build greater complexity in our farming systems and not simplify it. The 4IR is not so special that it lies outside our control, and for it to serve humanity, it would have to be governed by humans. We simply cannot leave this to the volition of engineers and designers.
4IR systems are complex and expensive. The costs of these new computerised systems may outweigh their production potential. Small sensors are cheap but the computers that run them need big bucks. Robots need maintenance and their manufacture creates significant impacts. All of this would need to be recouped by the farmer, who gains less than supermarkets out of the food value chain.
Robots are more expensive than tractors and 4IR agriculture is limited by its financial intensity. Large farming operations will benefit and this reveals its social impacts. Can it create a labour intensive agriculture that delivers jobs? It is ambiguous towards the environment, and we still need to see 4IR solutions that clearly enhance ecological functioning. A labour and biologically intensive agriculture that builds watertight systems of resource cycling and creates functional ecosystems in its production cycles will outperform the 4IR, particularly if we factor in true life cycle costs.
The 4IR certainly needs to be taken seriously. However I have the feeling we are seeing only the first generation of 4IR tech like a self-driving tractor that are “fetishes” of mechanical approaches. The 4IR will however create life-affirming solutions if we adapt it to regenerative methods and govern it that way.