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Agricultural Automation

In 1798, philosopher Thomas Malthus claimed that England's population (at that time, around 10 million) would soon outstrip its food resources. There'd be so many people that the food-producing farms would not be able to cope, and we'd starve.

Over 200 years later, while population pressures are still very much a relevant concern, Malthus's England has an absurd abundance of food. Despite having a population of over 66 million - more than six times the population levels which concerned Malthus - obesity is far more of a problem than starvation.

Malthus's mistake was to not account for the pace of change when totting up his figures. While the farms of Malthus's day certainly could not have fed over 66 million people, England is no longer reliant on farms like those which existed in Malthus's day.

Instead, as our population grew, so our technology changed to support it. Farming intensified. New methods of production were developed. Steam powered ploughs opened up the land's possibilities. Seed drills quite literally brought crops into line. Threshing machines cut out hours and hours of manual labour. New pump designs allowed land to be drained, reclaimed, and turned into pasture. After the wars, tractors, combine harvesters, pesticides, industrial fertilisers, and all the rest came into play.

In turn, Britain's agricultural revolutions fed her industrial revolutions. The decreasing need for farm labourers sent many people to urban centres, seeking work - which led to flourishing cities. Fed by the newly intensified farms, people were free to lend their labour to new industries, which allowed for industrial and technological growth at an unprecedented rate.

Now, a new agricultural revolution may be upon us. Agricultural automation becomes more impressive by the day, and it may not be long before the automation of agricultural processes becomes widespread.

Some people have concerns about this. In the past, before we properly understood just how delicate and easily lost ecological balance was, the mechanisation of farming has led to some absolutely dire environmental problems. But there's no need to assume that history would repeat itself with agricultural automation.

If we put stringent ecological protocols and failsafes in place, automated farms could actually become more environmentally friendly than our current models. After all, a robot programmed not to harm the environment isn't going to cut ecological corners when it's had a bad day. It isn't going to encroach upon set-aside land, let agricultural chemicals seep into rivers, shoot protected species, or find loopholes in environmental legislation. Nor is it going to get grumpy about public access points to the countryside, like footpaths. It hasn't any vested interest in doing so.

This isn't to say that there are no ethical concerns. Can we trust agricultural leaders and politicians to ensure that environmental considerations are at the fore as automation comes in? And, pressingly, what about the experience of livestock on an automated farm? Can a non-empathetic robot really be trusted to handle animals with the gentle care that they need? Can they act and react appropriately when animals are stressed, or hurt, or otherwise upset? And - the central question of automation - what about displaced human workers?

Automated dairy farms are often held up as both salutary example and dire warning of what's possible with agricultural automation. Cattle on these farms can be fed by a robotic arm, which swivels on tracks around the shed ceiling, plucking bales of feed and placing them delicately under the noses of the cattle. When the cattle want to be milked - something they decide independently - they make their way to an automated milking machine. These machines are capable of an astonishing array of feats. They can not only guide cups to the udders and milk the cow, they can also map her body using lasers, record her weight, her muscle tone, how much she has eaten, and how much milk she has produced. As for clear up, robots can do that, too.

The technology is clever, and the cows - well-fed, and never burdened with bursting udders - seem content. But, on the other hand, these are clearly industrial operations, taking place under the roofs of enormous cattle sheds. The cattle are not out in the pastures, eating grass, and they never see the skies. Does this matter? Some say 'yes', some say 'no', and others say 'perhaps, but it's a price worth paying to feed the world'. There are no easy answers to these kinds of questions. And it's worth noting that more 'traditional' farming methods, however rosily we may regard them in comparison to sheds full of robots, rarely bear up under the intense scrutiny of animal rights campaigns.

And what about the farm employees who would otherwise be doing these jobs? Well, that's an interesting one.

British farming is in the midst of a crisis - one facet of which is a labour famine. The decreasing number of people who work in agriculture must labour for intensely long hours, breaking their backs in the service of punishingly small returns. For most British farmers, operations on the scales of the automated farms would be far beyond reach - the workload would be too much, and (even if farmers could afford to take on an army of employees, which they cannot), the hired help simply does not exist. With Brexit, the EU workers many farmers currently rely upon will no longer be available, and there is a serious dearth of farm-trained labourers seeking work in rural Britain.

So there is an argument to be made that robots will not be taking anybody's job - they'll be stepping into empty shoes. Far from putting agricultural laborours out of a job, automation could save British farming from (among other things) a chronic lack of labour.

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