Ethical problems may arise with farm robotics, study says

There is a fear that smaller farms may miss out on robotics and be unable to keep up
There is a fear that smaller farms may miss out on robotics and be unable to keep up

Researchers have raised possible ethical and social challenges in using robots in agriculture as the industry becomes increasingly automated.

With robotics poised to transform farming, researchers from Australia’s Monash University have published the first-ever analysis of possible ethical issues that may rise.

The study, published in the journal Precision Agriculture, says that while there has not yet been widespread adoption of agri robots, it is anticipated there will be a gradual emergence of technologies for precision farming.

Already farmers are seeing the adoption of GPS-enabled tractors and harvesters, robotic milking stations and dairies, robotic fruit and vegetable pickers, drones for rounding up livestock, among others.

However, researchers state this could have negative consequences, including mismanagement of chemicals, soil compaction due to heavy robots and potential food wastage if consumers come to expect standardised or ‘perfect’ produce.

There is also a fear that smaller or struggling farms could miss out on the technology and be unable to keep up, leading to a centralisation of ownership in agriculture.

Philosophy Research Fellow Dr Mark Howard said there was a risk that robots could impact negatively on biodiversity and on the sustainability of agriculture more generally.

“Strong policy that encourages the development of robots that contribute to small-scale, local, and biodiverse agriculture and do not just promote existing unsustainable agricultural practices is a must,” he said.

Some experts suggest robots could also be used to improve the wellbeing of livestock, by enabling feeding and watering regimes to be tailored, faster identification of sick animals and administration of medication.

However, it should be acknowledged that, by their very nature, intensive farming practices pose significant challenges to animal welfare, Dr Howard said.

“The activities of robots may actually exacerbate the threats to animal welfare in practice,” he added.

On a positive note, the physically intense labour associated with agriculture work and its seasonal nature could see robots developed for tasks, such as fruit and vegetable picking.

Labour costs could also be reduced, but this would of course mean a reduction in employment opportunities, particularly for those in rural areas where employment opportunities are scarcer.

Researchers said the industry also needed to consider the potential risk that malicious actors might try to “hack”, or launch cyber attacks against, the automation on the farms of other nations.

Professor of Philosophy Robert Sparrow said: “The urgent need to move towards more sustainable agricultural practices... means that there is a strong ethical imperative to explore how robots might be used to advance these goals.

“The scale of the current global environmental crisis, and the challenge it poses to food security, suggests that every option to try to improve the sustainability of agriculture should be considered.”

The study's authors said a holistic approach to the uptake of robot technology in agriculture was required, firstly to address public concerns and the social and political impacts that may arise.

They also said comprehensive consideration of the ethical and policy ramifications of their use was also needed.