The Robot Farm Is Here

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- As rich countries welcome autonomous cars, trucks and boats onto their roads and waterways, the developing world is grappling with a humbler revolution: automated farming. What was once the world's most labor-intensive profession may be soon run by smartphones. And that could change agriculture as profoundly as mechanization did last century.

This shift will affect how food is grown and consumed everywhere. But its greatest impact will be in the developing world, where subsistence farms account for most of the arable land and populations are booming. China, home to 1.4 billion appetites, is embracing this technology earlier and more vigorously than its peers — and will consequently have to face up to its challenges, too.

This month, China is launching a seven-year autonomous agriculture pilot program in Jiangsu Province. Much like state efforts to boost driverless cars, robotics and other technology, the program will experiment with new equipment and methods in an effort to bring China's millions of polluting and unproductive farms into the information age. That could have immense benefits.

Autonomous farming dates to at least 2002, when Deere & Co. introduced a GPS-based guidance system for its tractors. The feature addressed a specific problem: When traditional tractors would lay seeds in a field, the rows tended to overlap, thereby wasting land and fuel. Deere's new system not only drove the tractor straight during planting but could "remember" crop paths during harvest. Farmers now use GPS to tag areas with variable soil or pest infestations, then feed the data into a tractor's computer to help make planting and harvesting decisions. Increasingly, these efforts are supplemented by aerial drones.

One result is that tasks that once relied on a farmer's eyes and instincts, such as irrigation and herbicide application, now unfold almost automatically. Last year, a U.K. group claimed to have achieved a world's first by planting, tending and harvesting a crop entirely with autonomous equipment. By one estimate, the global market for such gear could exceed $180 billion by 2024.

From China's viewpoint, all this looks especially promising. Thanks to rising incomes, Chinese are eating more of everything, including resource-intensive foods. Milk and dairy consumption quadrupled among city dwellers between 1995 and 2010. But this growth in demand is running up against some long-term supply constraints. Urbanization has plowed under millions of acres of arable land, while almost 20 percent of what remains is dangerously contaminated. Much of rural China is also heavily fragmented — the average household cultivated a mere 1.2 acres in 2013 — and thus highly inefficient.

Automated agriculture could help solve all these problems. It should boost yields, slash the cost of producing food, and alleviate China's chronic rural pollution by reducing the need for fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides. Some experts reckon that the technology may actually work best on smaller plots, as swarms of light, inexpensive robotic tractors could help farmers supercharge productivity on the cheap.

Amid all the optimism, though, some problems are already looming.

Most obvious is the threat to jobs. The percentage of China's workforce employed on farms has fallen drastically, from 55 percent in 1991 to 18 percent last year. But that's still some 250 million people, many of whom could well be displaced. Odds are, automation will create plenty of jobs elsewhere in the economy by improving productivity. But that will be small comfort to farmhands who will need to find new work. China, like other countries dealing with automation's fallout, will need to have a plan for those workers.

A similar challenge concerns skills. Rural workers — in China and throughout the developing world — simply aren't prepared for the powerful technology that will soon be in their hands. Farming, among the oldest professions, will soon require cutting-edge capabilities. To realize the full promise of rural automation, governments will need to build vocational education programs focused on robotics, intelligent systems and agronomy.

None of this will be easy, for China or any other country. And ancient ways of life will surely be upended. But looking ahead a few years, I'd bet the farm that the benefits of automated agriculture will outweigh all these challenges and more.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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