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Owen Paterson: 'Robots allow farmers to be more productive'

The world’s population is expected to increase by two billion between now and 2050.

Agriculture must, therefore, address the twin challenges of producing more food on less land while improving the environment.

 

New technology and the corresponding reduction in the agricultural footprint it entails hold the key to tackling these issues.

 

The trends over the last 50 years or so are already positive; a weighted average of all crops by their contribution to human diet reveals the acreage of land required to produce a given quantity of food is 68 per cent less than it was in 1960.

 

It has been estimated that less land will be needed, by an area larger than India, to feed the 9bn people of 2050 than is presently required to feed today’s 7bn.

 

Central to that progress is the exciting field of artificial intelligence and robotics. AI-driven farming aims to enhance the ways in which farmers gather data and improve the ways in which the information can be acted upon.

 

It seeks to create a farming system which can both increase food production and boost environmental outcomes.

 

This was the message I gave when I spoke to the Small Robot Company last month. This growing start up is building exciting lightweight machines, capable of seeding and caring for each individual plant in a crop in an efficient and fully automated way.


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Positive impact

 

The robots’ size has an immediate, positive environmental impact. Compaction as a result of heavy tractors and machinery can lead to serious degradation of soil and correspondingly significant losses in yield.

 

Small machines avoid such compaction and facilitate healthier and more biodiverse soil.

 

In addition, by building a detailed picture of the field, the robots will only feed or spray the individual plants which need treatment, providing them with a much more tailored level of support and reducing the waste inherent in large boom sprayers.

 

It was a similar story when I visited the Hands Free Farm at Harper Adams University in June. Accurate robotic means of delivering chemicals can significantly reduce their use.

 

The Hands Free Farm engineers and economists suggested automation could reduce the cost of wheat production by £50 per tonne.

 

Projections from the Small Robot Company imply this could be a conservative estimate. Revenues could be increased by up to 40 per cent, with costs reduced by 60 per cent.

 

Prof Simon Blackmore of the ag-tech start-up Earth Rover has further predicted that glyphosate use can be reduced to 1g/hectare (0.4g/acre) through intelligently targeted inputs and that laser weeding can eliminate herbicide use entirely.

 

The detailed care which robots provide can allow farmers to be kinder to soil and the environment, becoming more efficient, more precise and more productive.

 

This is a tremendously exciting and growing field, so it is imperative a new independent UK agricultural policy rejects the over-reliance on the precautionary principle and embraces the innovation principle. Once it does so, the UK can lead the world.

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