Rise of the machines: How high should we aim in terms of agritech?

Photo: Darrel Und/Pexels

It’s an exciting time to be in the tech industry, with so many advancements occurring in so many areas at the same time that it feels like we’re living in a science fiction novel, except this is reality. And while tech bros can make any form of new technology sound hot and sexy and cool and necessary to jettison Earth and its human inhabitants (especially its rich ones) into the 22nd century, it might be a good idea to hold our horses before joining the bandwagon (as opposed to jumping on it, so as not to injure our imaginary horses or inconvenience those already inside said wagon).

Photo: Darrel Und/Pexels

While integrating new technology into current practices is usually a good thing, and is certainly important so as not to get left behind, even more important is to figure out first if it’s practical and feasible to be integrating the latest technology in an endeavor that hasn’t even yet caught up with the not-so-latest tech.

For example, I heard in very, very casual conversation that it may or may not be true that certain agriculture organizations are passing over perfectly sound and sustainable projects because they want to prioritize AI (artificial intelligence).

I hope my source heard wrong, because while AI has a huge potential to help many industries, as with all technologies, there’s a proper place and time to use it. And while AI sounds shiny and new and sexy, it may not always be the best or most cost-effective solution, especially when the barrier of entry may still be high for most farmers and fishers, or may not even be applicable to some industries at all.

I made the same argument when I was interviewed for a Singaporean-produced documentary on Web 3, the next iteration of the internet that uses decentralization to empower users: while skepticism and lack of trust is a huge factor in the slowness of its adaptability, I feel that the more important and overlooked factors are a high barrier of entry and a lack of importance and integration into the daily lives of the regular internet user. For example, how can VR (Virtual reality) be the next big thing when most of the world can barely afford their monthly expenses, much less buy an expensive VR unit?

I feel the same way about certain forms of technology, not AI per se, but any shiny, sexy technology forcefully applied onto an agricultural society that for the most part barely even has access to old, but practical, serviceable, and most importantly, appropriate tech. In other words, it might be a tad impractical to talk about adapting the program that gave us the Terminator when most agricultural communities don’t even have preparation and harvesting machinery and post-harvest facilities.

If my friend is to be believed, it seems that some folks are more interested in being able to tell their friends that they use AI instead of actually solving one of the many problems that plague our agriculture industry.

There’s a frankly misplaced bid to “make agriculture sexy” in order to entice young people to consider it as a source of livelihood. While attracting young farmers, fishers, and agripreneurs is important to the industry, I don’t think using influencers or making it look attractive by jazzing it up with the latest but ultimately impractical (depending on usage) tech will help the industry in the long run.

If we’re serious about attracting the youth to a dying industry, we need to give them proof that they will thrive if they join.

How can we do that in an industry that’s famous for its instability and insecurity? Some suggestions come to mind, beginning with offering support to the already existing farmers, fishers, and other industry practitioners depending–and this part is important–on their industry and capacity. Before we can target the youth, we have to show them that the current generation can make a good living off the land or sea or warehouse (if, say, indoor farming is your thing). This requires government support in terms of loans, technical and financial education, subsidies, cold storage facilities, market roads, and so on, to start, as the private sector can only do so much, no matter how much they want to help.

The pandemic has shown that Filipino citizens are always ready and willing to support local farmers. They just have to be given the means to be able to do so. And right now, super shiny high technology isn’t the answer for most industry practitioners, many of whom remain the poorest of the poor. Maybe in the future it will be, but for now, what our agriculture practitioners need is the kind of support and tech that’s commensurate to their needs, which should be determined in cooperation with the farmers and fishers themselves, so as to give everyone involved the agency to engineer their success.

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Yvette Tan
Yvette Tan is Agriculture magazine's managing editor’s web editor. She is an award-winning writer who likes to eat, travel, and listen to stories about the strange and supernatural. She is dedicated to encouraging people to push for sustainable food sources and is an advocate of food security, food sovereignty, and the preservation of community foodways.

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