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Why Blade Runner provides a lesson for agritech adoption

23rd November 2019

Ridley Scott’s original production – the dystopian vision of a future world where a dwindling human population faces an existential threat from ‘replicants’, robots almost indistinguishable from humans – was set in November 2019.

By now, you’ll be aware that Mr Scott’s vision was, mercifully, a little wide of the mark. But that’s the problem we face today with agritech adoption, explains Dr David Christian Rose, Elizabeth Creak Associate Professor of Agricultural Innovation and Extension at the University of Reading.

Speaking at Farmers Weekly’s inaugural Future Farm Technology Expo, held at Birmingham’s NEC on November 7th, Dr Rose pointed out that while certain technologies can be adopted relatively quickly, others can take much longer to gain traction and to be adopted at scale.

Blade Runner’s flying cars and intelligent, biological robots? Not any time soon. But we do have smart homes and virtual assistants.

What does this have to do with agritech adoption? Well, the point to remember is that even with the excitement that surrounds today’s agtech sphere, it still takes time for these technologies to filter down into mainstream use.

“You’re here today to hear us panellists paint the picture of what agriculture will look like in ten years’ time,” Dr Rose said. “And yet with the greatest respect in the world, if they paint a picture of a world in which rural skies are filled with drones, and automated robots and other equipment are implemented at scale, I say that is complete nonsense.

“Human farmers and advisors shouldn’t hang up their boots yet.”

For many existing precision technologies, it’s taken well over two decades since they first became available to use on-farm before they’ve been implemented at scale, Dr Rose pointed out.

For those involved in agtech, or faced with encouraging agritech adoption on farm, Dr Rose says there are at least five different reasons to consider.

  1. For all the buzz surrounding many novel agtech ideas, many of the technologies themselves are far away from being implementable at scale;
  2. Once they become implementable, real usage data will be needed to see whether there is an economic (or other) case for adoption. This will take time to prove (if indeed it can be proven) – some precision farming technologies have already failed to demonstrate their value in a real, on-farm situation;
  3. Proving the value case is only part of the problem. Invariably, there is ingrained behaviour to overcome. This limits the speed of adoption;
  4. If and when farmers decide they want to use the technology, do they have the skills to do so? Or does it require provision as a service?
  5. Is there the necessary rural infrastructure to make it work?

Then there are issues of data privacy and security, legal frameworks, employment, animal welfare and farmer mental health, not to mention its possible effects on the nature of the countryside, and how the general public might react.

Excitingly, all these factors are to form the basis for a new study at the University of Reading, being undertaken by Dr Rose and two PhD students.

“We will imagine different agri-tech futures and aim to understand who we need to include, and how, in order to decide upon mutually acceptable responsible innovation trajectories.

“This is not necessarily about ‘game-changing’ innovation, but technologies that might make things better on farm.

“We are too often seduced by the pursuit of silver bullets, of game-changing technologies. From an academic perspective, it is disheartening to see so much of the transforming food production money being pumped into big, shiny stuff, rather than using it to connect stakeholders within a joined-up innovation system.

"Take a set of scales, for example. Would you define a set of cattle scales as technology? I would, but many wouldn’t – and the show here today probably wouldn’t consider them ‘agriculture 4.0’.

“Yet used regularly, those scales can help a beef farmer improve his production. Pursuing lower-tech innovations that farmers can already use is perhaps better than being persuaded to try drone technology.”

Constant incremental change – making things a bit better and continuing to do so – is the way to go, Dr Rose enthused. “Make your farm a bit more profitable. Make your inputs a bit smarter. Make better use of the data you are already producing. Make smarter use of the equipment you’ve already got. With all of this, you can make gains.”

Above all, Dr Rose encouraged farmers to share. “By sharing ideas, sharing successes, and sharing failures, we can identify the technologies that help us make gains and forget those that don’t.

“Don’t be too easily seduced by that promise of a game-changer. Ask questions of the manufacturer, understand whether it will work for you, whether it’s you or the company who will benefit most.

“Only you can come to a decision that most suits your needs.”

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