The 4th agri revolution is in the offing, but whom will it benefit?
While the prospects seem to be ‘exciting’ at best, it leads the world to a stage where farmers will join the ranks of endangered species
If all that I am reading about comes true, Agricultural Revolution 4.0 is expected to transform the existing farming systems. By using sophisticated precision technologies, including Artificial Intelligence (AI), robotics, digital technologies and synthetic foods, it will eventually lead to more concentration and effective control over food. While the prospects seem to be 'exciting' at best, it leads the world to a stage where farmers will join the ranks of endangered species.
Prevalent narratives of agricultural innovation predict that we are once again on the cusp of a global agricultural revolution, say David Christian Rose et al of the Cranfield University in Britain. He has his team has worked extensively on the cost benefits outcomes of a technology-driven food system intensification that awaits the world. A recent report entitled 'Food Barons 2022' by ETC Group, the Canada-based research non-profit, provides an overview of how scary the transformation is expected to be, and what it means to the future of farming.
Moving ahead of the existing Agricultural Revolution 3.0 (which ushered in Green Revolution) at a pace that is much faster than human endurance, Agricultural Revolution 4.0 relies heavily on automation and comes with the promise of feeding a rapidly growing population. This is exactly what the earlier three Agricultural Revolutions too had promised, and eventually Green Revolution which came up in 1950 and 1960s, requiring high-yielding crops, fertiliser, pesticides and increased mechanisation, left the world with a broken food system, much beyond repair.
At a time when the world is grappling with a climate emergency, a study by Nature Food has shown that agriculture is responsible for 34 per cent of the global Green House Gas (GHGs) emissions, besides one-third of the food produced and processed, eventually going into landfills. If food waste was a country, it would have ranked third in global GHG emissions. With the social, economical and environmental fallout of the Green Revolution being so glaring, the challenge is to fix the broken system. But with the venture capitalists (as well as the financial and economic systems) investing in smart technologies, a brave new agricultural world is in creation. The kind of developments I see are a lot scary, with a number of industrialists saying that they are in the process of 'manufacturing farm lands'. This means that food is being produced in the industrial complexes without the use of land and as well as farmers.
Considering that the food industry as part of the US gross domestic product is worth $1 trillion, I can see the reasons behind the food industry's push to walk with as big a share of the pie as possible. Already, the food industry is a big player in US food production systems, but given that the cost of producing food is very high – for every one dollar of food, three dollars of natural resources are consumed – harping on savings through sustainability parameters becomes essential. By not utilising land resource, the future smart agriculture industry claims that it is restoring bio-diversity, and reinventing nature. The architects of lab-grown meat and vertical farming systems, using the 3-D printer technology for producing snack foods, are increasingly getting political and economic support. These technologies are attracting huge funding for reasons that are obvious. Unless the social impact of these new technologies are debated (and that too at time when they are in the formulating process), the challenges of responsible and sustainable intensification – for the people, production and planet - would be lost. Since billionaires control politics, they also drive the dominant narrative. It may therefore be too late when they have already made large investments.
With concentration of immense power in the hands of a handful of food barons, it will be too late to bring them under the control of the society at large. After all, science and technology is for the society. Although eco-efficiency is important but the society must continue to exercise its control over how food is produced, and how the benefit is shared with the primary producer and the consumer. Knowing that real battle ahead lies between a shareholder and a stakeholder, it is absolutely essential to ensure that the new technological innovations are made to operate within the defined parameters of social responsibility. Public policies must be tuned in that direction.
As said earlier, every revolution in agriculture came with a lot of promises. What makes Agriculture Revolution 4.0 a lot different from the previous revolutions is that it uses (and can manipulate) available data to actually strengthen the industrial food value chains. The romance with food, and essentially with traditional foods, will disappear as the technological giants take over the food chain. The power to decide what to produce and how to produce will lie with the technology company, and with the kind of investments being made in advertising, people can easily be seduced to develop a taste or for that matter develop new food habits.
This is not difficult. With continuous hammering over TV and other media channels, advertising does deliver to people what it is supposed to. The other day nutritionist Rujuta Diwekar tweeted: "I am watching the Pakistan vs New Zealand on TV and have learnt three things: 1) every child must eat noodles to be happy. 2) Every man must wear deo to attract women, and 3) successful people drink alcohol but camouflage it as soda or bottled water." With celebrities (and with a few honourable exceptions) willing to endorse all kinds of dubious products, the task to influence the public mindset becomes relatively easy.
At the same time, I feel the advent of Agricultural Revolution 4.0 and how it would eat away the rights of farmers and farm workers is too serious a matter to be left to be addressed with time. Since the technological innovations are moving at a much faster pace than can be imagined, the task to educate tens of millions of small farmers, fishers, pastorals and farm workers remains a daunting task. The civil society and the academia therefore have a huge responsibility on their hands, for they only can influence public policy and in the process let the message flow to the masses. And so does the consumer. Not sure how many of us would like to switch to synthetic coffee which does not use the coffee powder or to drink a cup of tea which is synthetically prepared. As a consumer too, we need to be vigilant as to where the next food revolution is headed to. Wake up, before it becomes too late.
(The author is a noted food policy analyst and an expert on issues related to the agriculture sector. He writes on food, agriculture and hunger)