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The Fourth Agricultural Revolution Is Coming, But Who Will Really Benefit?

The Fourth Agricultural Revolution Is Coming, But Who Will Really Benefit?

By David Rose and Charlotte-Anne Chivers

Depending on who you listen to, artificial intelligence may either free us from monotonous labour and unleash huge productivity gains, or create a dystopia of mass unemployment and automated oppression. In the case of farming, some researchers, business people and politicians think the effects of AI and other advanced technologies are so great they are spurring a "fourth agricultural revolution".

Given the potentially transformative effects of upcoming technology on farming—positive and negative—it's vital that we pause and reflect before the revolution takes hold. It must work for everyone, whether it be farmers (regardless of their size or enterprise), landowners, farm workers, rural communities or the wider public. Yet, in a recently published study led by the researcher Hannah Barrett, we found that policymakers and the media and policymakers are framing the fourth agricultural revolution as overwhelmingly positive, without giving much focus to the potential negative consequences.

The first agricultural revolution occurred when humans started farming around 12,000 years ago. The second was the reorganization of farmland from the 17th century onwards that followed the end of feudalism in Europe. And the third (also known as the green revolution) was the introduction of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and new high-yield crop breeds alongside heavy machinery in the 1950s and 1960s.

The fourth agricultural revolution, much like the fourth industrial revolution, refers to the anticipated changes from new technologies, particularly the use of AI to make smarter planning decisions and power autonomous robots. Such intelligent machines could be used for growing and picking crops, weeding, milking livestock and distributing agrochemicals via drone. Other farming-specific technologies include new types of gene editing to develop higher yielding, disease-resistant crops; vertical farms; and synthetic lab-grown meat.

These technologies are attracting huge amounts of funding and investment in the quest to boost food production while minimizing further environmental degradation. This might, in part, be related to positive media coverage. Our research found that UK coverage of new farming technologies tends to be optimistic, portraying them as key to solving farming challenges.

However, many previous agricultural technologies were also greeted with similar enthusiasm before leading to controversy later on, such as with the first genetically modified crops and chemicals such as the now-banned pesticide DDT. Given wider controversies surrounding emergent technologies like nanotechnology and driverless cars, unchecked or blind techno-optimism is unwise.

We mustn't assume that all of these new farming technologies will be adopted without overcoming certain barriers. Precedent tells us that benefits are unlikely to be spread evenly across society and that some people will lose out. We need to understand who might lose and what we can do about it, and ask wider questions such as whether new technologies will actually deliver as promised.

Robotic milking of cows provides a good example. In our research, a farmer told us that using robots had improved his work-life balance and allowed a disabled farm worker to avoid dextrous tasks on the farm. But they had also created a "different kind of stress" due to the resulting information overload and the perception that the farmer needed to be monitoring data 24/7.

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