The world’s first robot farmer, Prospero, is now getting a lot of attention since an amateur robotics enthusiast posted a Youtube video a few months ago. These small, bug-like machines created by an amateur robotics enthusiast can plant, fertilize and tend crops, and, in theory, help feed the world.

But can they?

Prospero is a very impressive robot. It’s an efficient design which uses a lot of low-tech solutions to build a “swarm” of autonomous robots which can cover a lot of ground. The deeper question, though, remains – are robots really what farms need? Technophillic “solutions” like this are frequently touted by our high-tech media, but show a remarkable ignorance of the realities of farming and hunger, especially in poor nations. Like GMO crops and other ultra-high-tech, answers, they do a lot to glorify the wonders of technology, but fail to address the real problems faced by farmers.

What’s the point of a robot farmer? Obviously, to reduce the amount of labour needed for farming. But is this something farmers need? Industrial technologies have been dramatically lowering the labour needs of farming for a century, generally by putting farmers out of work. In countries like 2% of our population is needed to grow our food. and falling. In rich and poor nations alike, since the dawn of the industrial age, rural areas have been witnessing an exodus into the cities, and it’s taken a huge toll on their abilities to sustain themselves. This isn’t, and has never been an issue of “more food per farmer”, but rather more food per landowner.

Shouldn’t more productive technologies solve this problem? Why would they? We have more than enough food – people aren’t getting it. Growing more will only drive down the price, leading to poorer farmers and more wasted food, land and water. Worse yet, it’ll put even more of the world’s croplands under the control of a few large, centralized companies like Monsanto, ADM or Cargill, since they can afford to let food sit and rot while their competition goes out of business or starves.

It may seem counter-intuitive to draw connections between increased food production and famine, but any real look at the history of famine shows it very clearly. From the Irish Potato Famine to modern third world nations, people tend to starve en masse in countries busily exporting food. Shifting from traditional family farming systems to more “advanced” industrial systems also often involves huuman carnage on horrific scales – as was witnessed during the dawn of “collective farming” in Communist Russia and China, killing many tens of millions of people in each. As a final, perhaps prophetic form of famine, there’s what happens when one of these systems collapses, as it did in North Korea after the collapse of the USSR – with no cheap oil imports for fertilizer or diesel fuel, the nation fell into one of the worst famines on record.

Industrial methods, using machines, chemicals and enormous centrally controlled farms have indeed produced a lot of food, but at a tremendous cost. While chemical fertilizers severely deplete the soils, pesticides knock out the natural web of predators for pest species. Machines involve enormous capital costs, and require enormous areas to be profitable. Mechanical planting, tending and harvesting have demanded highly standardized crops, wiping out countless traditional varieties with genetically identical strains bred for the task (and often lacking in taste, texture and nutrition). Mechanical tilling has further degraded the soil, effectively dumping the carbon content (humus) into the atmosphere, as one of the world’s largest CO2 emitters. Farmers have suffered, food has suffered, and a few corporations have become obscenely rich and unbelievably powerful.

We already know how to grow more food with less land, energy and other inputs. Ordinary, old-fashioned, human labour. While this MSNBC article talks of gains of 20% per acre of farmland, the added care and attention given urban gardens often yields 20 times more food per square foot. There’s no shortage of workers, in fact, we’re facing the opposite problem on a very large scale. Without jobs, people aren’t allowed access to this food. Excluding them from the process, especially in developing countries, tends to offset any increases in efficiency. We’ve seen this problem with tractors and combines, pesticides, fertilizers and GMO seeds – why would an army of small robots be any different?

Before a task can be automated, it must be understood. Growing food is not simple – it only looks that way from a distance. Before we can hand this vital task over to robots, let’s first make sure that we know what we’re doing with bare hands in soil. In our rush to “update” farming with 20th century technologies, we overlooked the fact they were being applied to an underlying system which hasn’t changed much since Ancient Mesopotamia. If 21st century technology is going to change that pattern, it’ll happen by re-examining the basic system itself, not simply adding more mechanical power to systems which clearly don’t work.

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