The history of agriculture is the history of introducing a form of technology into the production of food.
Our ancestors lived as hunter gatherers, they would naturally flow with the seasons and migrations of wildlife. The experience was often unpredictable, which consequently spurred the birth of the agrarian age – and with it came human settlement and great civilisations.
Now, think of a tomato. Its wild forbearer came from Mesopotamia. It was half the size and nowhere near as juicy, nutritious or easily grown as the one found in an allotment or your Tesco’s salad. Millennia of plant breeding by individual growers has made it so. We take the traits of one plant and that of another to breed the perfect specimen for our own needs.
Think of Rice Paddies across the breadth of Asia. Five thousand years ago, farmers saw wild grass abundantly growing in flooded conditions and decided to replicate the system for their own harvest. Now rice is the most widely consumed staple food in the world.
What do both of these have in common? They both show humanity’s ability to be efficient and adaptable in order to produce security. In my opinion, these two traits are conducive to being able to survive and thrive.
Human minds are incredible things. Like the first primeval ape to pick up a stick, we overcame our immediate circumstance through wit and craft.
But fast forward several thousand years, and here we are. As a species, our craft has separated us from the universal systems that sustain us, and our wit is a self-inflated ego that claims, ‘bigger is better’.
We have become so amazingly efficient and adaptable that currently, the world’s farmers produce enough food to feed 1.5 times the global population. Yet, through systemic failures and broken distribution channels, it is unattainable for the poor and malnourished, therefore it lies in waste.
We are already living in the land of plenty. Walk into any superstore and take a moment to pause – sheer abundance.
This abundance has a cost – it is of great urgency that we adapt our diets and means of production in order to avoid the oncoming planetary, economical and social crises. We believe that meat must be with every meal, we believe that food must be cheap. Our conditioning and cognitive thinking has designed our economic systems to perpetuate damaging circumstances. The more we apply controlling measures upon more and more of the universe, the irony is that the less secure we become.
Within this play, technology is championed as a path that will save humankind. In reality, technology is only a tool, and the benefits come from the hands that know how to rightly use it.
In agriculture, automation is advocated to increase efficiency. Through sensors and algorithms, a whole farm can be void of people. On one hand, this could reduce vast amounts of carcinogenic pesticides - which is simply killing us. On the other, we become even more distant from the food that we eat; literally from the health inducing microbes of the soil, and spiritually from our ancestry of watching the cycle of birth and death of plants and livestock.
There are also complex socio-economic issues around labour shortages and the consequential cost of wages. Automation could increase productivity by mitigating labour risks, whilst working longer than an eight-hour day.
Installing automation systems is costly and those who own that privilege work with economies of scale. A global trend denotes that profitable larger farms are amalgamating smaller ones. Prince Charles himself is publicly advocating how this simply a travesty. It is fundamentally critical that we uphold a mosaic of land usages in the countryside. Without them, we can kiss goodbye to biodiversity, rural economies, and local and accessible food – and consequently welcome climate change, the collapse of our ecosystems and also, national food security. Small-scale farms do not have the economies of scale to implement systemic automation and thus, are economically disadvantaged, again. The cost of real healthy food goes up and it is an ironic privilege of the rich.
My father is an old school farmer, he milks cows in Somerset and that milk goes to make good old Somerset Cheddar cheese. I even milked cows myself for several years. The beauty of watching a sunrise in Spring while you get the herd into the yard ready for milking will never leave me. Farmers milk the cows using a machine - it has a pressurised vacuum that replicates a calf sucking at the teat. This technology was widely embraced by farming through the mid 20th Century.
In 2019, my dad now sees his way of farming becoming outdated. A neighbouring farm has just installed a fully automated milking parlour – the farmer doesn’t need to even put his wellies on. The claimed advantages of this system are the elimination of labour, consistency and frequency of milking, and the ability to manage a herd through data.
Over a cup of tea, I brought this up with my dad and he elaborated his view on progress. “When I was in agricultural college in the early 70s, a good cow gave a thousand gallons a year. Then, in the late 70s the system went metric and 1000 gallons was 4,500 litres, but the bar was rounded up to 5,000 litres per cow. These days we’re looking for a cow to give 10,000 litres. We have doubled the yield of a cow in just 40 years.”
When I asked how that has happened, my dad points at another form of technological advancement - Artificial Insemination. “We can choose the semen from the best bulls from around the world. We can choose whatever trait we want to develop in our herd. Through this process we have dramatically improved the efficiency of animal husbandry.”
This adaptation through breeding highlights another more hidden side of technological advancements; genetics. An automated milking system does not cope well with non-uniformity. Not many people have spent time handling the teats of a cow but they’re knobbly, some are bent, others even cross over themselves. Automation struggles to decipher the process of putting them onto the machine. Therefore, cows in automated systems need to have uniform teats and are now bred for that trait.
Technological changes in farming have exploded. New innovations are being routinely rolled out; drones, monitors, automated tractors, and robotic arms. The aim is to overcome the drudgery of tasks like harvesting, weed control, packing, and sorting. Basically, autonomous tasks.
Automation in agriculture is complex, it has to be viewed with steep criticism and yet simultaneously welcomed. There is light in the dark and dark in the light.
Sometimes, I see automation as a tool that will actually solve a problem. Other times, I see it in a darker manner; a wolf of capitalism dressed in a Welsh sheepskin rug. With new innovations come new professionals, companies and investors who need to develop and maintain the market and the demand. Over the past forty years, the agri-tech industry has sprung up and it requires agricultural systems to remain as they are. This is the basic fuel that feeds the perpetuation of a well-known myth.
The drums bang, the bells toll and we are forcibly informed that only industrial agriculture can meet food security, especially with a growing population. It is simply a lie. The UN states that 70% of the world’s food comes from small scale agroecological farmers. It is the sweat and passion of women and the poorest who feed the world.
I see agriculture as the frontier where the universal truths of flow, cycle, balance and interdependence meet the human phycological construct of Capitalism and eternal growth.
The first rule of ‘law’ for capitalism is that expenditure is always less than income. With it comes a subsection titled ‘low expenditure - cheap labour - cheap food’. And right here is the crux of the systemic problem.
Since WW2 we have been involved with the EU’s ‘Common Agricultural Policy’. In short, farmers received a payment per acre of land in production; a subsidy for producing food. Why? Because food is vital, it is a common good for human existence. Yet the market dictates that it has to be cheap even though it requires the resources for production.
The consequence of what has passed is that we – our tax money – is subsidising negligent practices; the birth of the monoculture. Systems such as these are non-regenerative – meaning that their soil is dying. In the Eastern counties, the region known as ‘bread basket of England’, there are only 40 harvests left. Literally; cheap food costs the Earth.
In this context, there is room for automation to help us, but it’s only a means to an end. An old adage states that ‘a fool in his folly will one day become wise’. What automation will contribute to is the speeding up of the folly so that we all become wise and welcome the dawning of ‘enlightened agriculture’.
Capitalism as a whole is expanding in its duality – the poles between rich and poor are furthering apart; like an elastic band it either bounces back to centre or eventually, it snaps.
Now, we have a sorry state that in the UK there are people employed in producing or packaging basic foodstuffs who cannot afford to buy what it is they are producing – I find that rude and frankly obscene. This is food, not a Ferrari. In this circumstance, there is a valid argument that they would be better off working elsewhere and let the machines do the work – but there is no guarantee that the job they go into is any more fulfilling.
What concerns me is that we still live in a society which for the most part has the psychological conditioning that if you don’t do the work, you don’t deserve to eat. Those who carry this persuasion view the amazing idea of Basic Income as a form of welfare for the lazy and idle. When actually, it is absolutely vital in bridging the divide between rich and poor. To return back to the elastic band analogy, so society doesn’t snap.
The purpose of automation is for it to achieve its raison d'être; to ease society and as a whole community – avoiding the ‘haves’ being further advantaged over the ‘have nots’.
I know some really authentically inspiring farmers, and as a movement they are mostly unseen by wider society – they are doing a heck of a lot, with not much. They are women and men who through their craft give nourishment to individuals, communities and the planet. They run businesses, feed families, save genetic diversity, enrichen biodiversity, champion rights, uphold morals, give consultation to politicians, and educate children and adults; all on very modest pay.
The thing is, when it is all boiled down, we have to ask ourselves; what is it that we value?
I can tell you that the people who farm in this way are some of the happiest, most content people that I have ever had the pleasure to meet and I am proud to feel part of their tribe. Organisations such as the Landworkers’ Alliance are giving the people a voice who want a system that is conducive to planetary and human health.
What differs between these people and industrial farmers is that they exist embodying an understanding of the fundamental universal truths (of flow, cycle, balance and interdependence).
Instead of battling nature into submission with some robotic instrument, they welcome her into the process and live interdependently and are thankful. They yield all of which they can but in balance, they give back. They recycle and reuse what is no longer needed and in doing so, the death of one cycle is the fertility of another. Like trees in the forest, each are connected – through their roots they support the individual and simultaneously the whole.
This level of consciousness is engrained in Agroecology. I believe this to be the future of farming.
Here, people value seeing their personal effort bear fruit, be it physically or spiritually. They learn through failure and accomplishment. The sweat and strain, make a sunny summer afternoon rest taste sweet. Is this not truly living? An authentic connection of self to other be it planetary or communal. Living with purpose is connecting to something higher than one’s self.
Here, automation may well find itself in the fields, but it’ll come through authentically, as a tool – a means to an end. It’ll be a timer turning on a tap for the 5pm watering, an app that informs you of a rising temperature in the greenhouse while you’re in the packing shed, or a laser that measures the lay of the land.
The biggest innovation that’ll ever occur in agriculture is when we collectively return and reconnect. The genetic fabric of our human evolution has been weaved through our connection to nature and to a community. To separate ourselves from that fact is to find our species ever lost, ever looking for home.
The dynasties of industrial agriculture are cloud capped towers yet to grasp their impending impermanence. The fundamental flaws of their system – the inability to align with the natural systems that sustain us and supporting human health for all – will bring people and their values closer together.
This is power speaking truth to power.
A Team Foundation
With photography permitted by the exhibition We Feed The World.