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Social considerations of on-farm innovation

Do regulators, tech developers, and the wider agricultural community consider social impacts of innovation with enough frequency?

The ability to innovate is critical for everyone in the agriculture sector – but sometimes I wonder whether we get too lost in the inner workings of new tech, both in the laboratory and on the farm.

More specifically, I question whether we think enough about the social implications of innovation, regulation, and what happens when the gap between the two gets too wide. Overall, and particularly for those doing the innovating and regulating, I’m not convinced we do. To illustrate, here are a few cases.

Proactive privacy discussions

I’ve had a couple conversations with researchers working on facial and voice recognition technology for farm settings. That is, developing systems to help farmers and ranchers monitor and identify livestock and crops, as well as interact with the machines themselves. This is fascinating stuff to be sure, particularly when one delves into the challenges of applying machine learning to animal faces.

What comes up with comparatively little frequency – unless otherwise prompted by concerned journalists – are the darker aspects of facial recognition technology. Privacy concerns. Potential misuse by authority or more nebulous nefarious entities. The potential for false positives and the derivative fallout. These are well known, concurrent problems, and much discussed in a variety of media.

Get ahead of facial recognition

If these issues exist in the wider world, bringing facial recognition technology to the farm will bring those same issues. Therefore, how they could impact the farm – or indeed, what preventative measures can be taken – should also be addressed. For all our talk of data privacy, control, and ownership concerns, it might be wise to get ahead of facial recognition by discussing how to protect farmers, employees, and farm businesses overall.

At the very least the negatives and associated safeguards don’t seem to be in the first few talking points, though perhaps they ought to be

I certainly don’t believe researchers, tech companies, and regulators ignore these problems, but in the agricultural space at least, I’m not hearing the conversation to the same degree. At the very least the negatives and associated safeguards don’t seem to be in the first few talking points, though perhaps they ought to be.

Infrastructure and local communities

From cattle ranches to grain farms, the design and scale of agricultural infrastructure impacts the local environment – and by consequence, local residents. Safeguards in the form of regulation, industry standards, and even common sense are therefore required to ensure communities are safe, and community members don’t feel mistreated or neglected.

Innovations in production can come very fast, though. This can have significant impacts for both individuals and other businesses.

Cannabis and vegetable greenhouse industry

Take North America’s cannabis and vegetable greenhouse industry, for example. In some areas, including the one in which I reside, rapid expansion of greenhouse acreage has put significant pressure on local utilities (water and electricity), damaged existing infrastructure (notably rural roads), and raised local farmland values to unheard of levels (from $ 8,000 per acre to $ 35,000 per acre in a few years, for example).

Light pollution

There is additional fallout, too. Rural homes completely surrounded by glass in such a short period of time may lose property value. Light pollution, a major issue from the start, continues to grow in severity as greenhouses increasingly employ new growing systems. Aromas from cannabis operations is another factor, though odd smells are certainly not uncommon the agriculture sector as a whole.

These are not just local issues for your truly. A recent article from Thompson Reuters, for example, highlights some of these and other concerns as common across a range of North American locations.

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Light pollution, a major issue from the start, continues to grow in severity as greenhouses increasingly employ new growing systems. - Photo: Matt McIntosh
Light pollution, a major issue from the start, continues to grow in severity as greenhouses increasingly employ new growing systems. - Photo: Matt McIntosh

Admittedly, sometimes business is just business. Like those facing urban sprawl, business owners have to adapt as community investment grows. The expansion of under-glass acreage wasn’t made in violation of regulation, and indeed, the economic impact such investment has is a valuable thing for any community.

But I’d hazard to suggest local governments did not enough consider the subsequent, non-economic effects these and future developments will have on the wider community. Of course, it would be ideal if more care was given by some greenhouse operators, themselves surely not oblivious to the environmental impact of new growing systems in the community.

Regardless, it’s a case where innovation got ahead of the rules, and perhaps one which might have been remedied in a mutually acceptable manner if more weight was initially given to social concerns.

Establishing base facts

Regulations intended to help remedy climate change are, speaking as a general whole, not overly popular with a notable portion of the farm community. At least in Canada, this is in part because such regulations have or are likely to increase costs for farmers without a way to recuperate those costs (e.g. carbon taxation without credits for sequestration).

Needless to say attempts to find middle-ground climate policy continue, though the necessity of implementing some kind of environmental reform is absolutely clear. On the farm, this will eventually require innovation. For regulators, the question is ensuring farmers can practically afford it.

But in many cases, the technology to make significant on-farm changes already exists – particularly in energy and infrastructure.

The future of agriculture is reliant on both farming and non-farming stakeholders (everyone) combining imagination with the will necessary to redesign how farms work

As detailed by one University of Guelph agriculture professor, the only true barriers are self-imposed. The future of agriculture is reliant on both farming and non-farming stakeholders (everyone) combining imagination with the will necessary to redesign how farms work. That involves looking beyond agriculture as an easy target of carbon-emission criticism, and not responding negatively to environmental concerns from non-industry groups.

Regulation could keep pace with innovation

Not engaging in this way illustrates a lack of perspective. The technology is there, so we can innovate. Regulation, with sufficient detail and clarity, could keep pace with that innovation by responsibly supporting it. Compared to the practical work of developing new software or farm robots this might be a high-level discussion, but it’s an important one socially, politically, and scientifically.

Unfortunately, it’s also not a conversation I hear often enough. Rather than haranguing one another about taxes on diesel – the proverbial individual tree – we ought to be talking about the forest.

One comment

  • JIM BOAK

    Very thoughtful Matt. You raise many points that our leaders are unaware of. Travelling North America for almost 2o years I have witnessed the decline of farm communities first hand. Towns and villages are dead or have died resulting from the rapid decline of farm families. Rural population loss is a direct result of technology and innovation. Today's farm family operates 10 times the land that a family operation could manage 40 years ago. The confinement of livestock is just one example and maybe the most damaging innovation for communities and the environment. Removal of fencing allows farmers to farm into the bottom of roadside drains. Surface drains flow unimpeded into the road side drain. 40 yr. ago surface water runoff carrying residue and nutrients was impeded by hayfields, pastures and fence lines crisscrossing fields. The volume of surface runoff has increased along with the nutrient load as there are few pastures and hayfields to trap and absorb the water. It is rare to see a fence in a field or along a roadside drain. Billions of tons of farm land are now at the bottom of the lake as a result. Thousands of acres of wild life habitat are lost. 1000's of rural families have vanished with our thoughtless implementation of innovation and technology. It seems like no one really cares to question this blind rush to implementing even more technology yet. Robot operators are next and if you think you won't be replaced by a robot then you are living in a dream.

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