Ethics of Future Farm Tech (Part 3 of 6)

Perfect Pest Prevention

Imagine all your weeds and pests gone like this…

Within the next few decades we may perfect the ability to remove pests from our fields. As mentioned in the first post, there are already companies developing robots that can identify and eliminate weeds. The directions these companies are taking ranges from selectively spraying herbicides onto weeds, which would not only eliminate the need to insert resistance genes into crops but would also allow you to spray a wide variety of herbicides on a field, drastically reducing the chance of resistance naturally occurring. The other direction these companies are taking, is a physical approach to weed elimination. Smashing, crushing, or cutting the weeds. While weeds may evolve thicker roots to resist the robots, we can also keep making the robots stronger.

Like this… except Skynet is after dandelions instead of people.

               With weeds eliminated, the remaining pests will be fungi and animals. While fungi may be a more difficult pest to eliminate, the problems with birds and insects will likely be solved soon after weeds. Already being used in developing countries, we have lasers that shoot down mosquitoes. Since the technology used on these mosquitoes is sensitive enough to determine what is a benign insect – even down to gender – the technology could be adapted to zap aphids, Japanese beetles, or hessian flies. Anything with wings can be identified based on the wing beat pattern, and they can be eliminated.

               When it comes to birds, we just have to look to efforts being taken under the seas for the answer. In Australia, the Queensland University of Tech is developing an underwater drone that can identify and kill invasive species. If a drone can navigate the three dimensions of the seas, it can navigate the skies. If it can correctly identify invasive species through hazy conditions in the water, it can do so even in foggy mornings. What’s more, the drones will not be on a food chain, they can be de-activated with a switch, and you won’t have to train them. While some farmers today hire falconers to discourage birds from eating crops, in the future they will be able to have drones do this. A professional falconer won’t be needed, just a few people willing to drive the drone to its next job.

               However, there are a few issues with this technology. I recall my boss at Central Oregon Agronomy pointing out that there is no such thing as a weed. A weed is just a plant we don’t want. A weed to Farmer Joe, is the lifeline of a monarch butterfly. What looks like an annoying yellow flower to one neighbor, is a free salad green to the next. If every farmer has the ability to flip a switch and eliminate every single competing plant in a field – will she do it? Should she do it? If we could overnight make every noxious weed extinct, some might leap at the chance. But there are some insects that rely on the plants for their life cycle. The elimination of a plant that one person considers a weed, may result in the elimination of an insect that relied on it. Perfect pest prevention may result in further problems up the food chain.

               You might feel the urge to point out that herbicides have been promising weed elimination for decades, and none have succeeded so far. Plus, you might add, there will always be irrigation and drainage ditches, the lazy farmer across the street, and your dog from the last blog post that survived the tractor incident now has seed burs in his fur. However, with artificial intelligence and machine learning, we are on the verge of creating an intelligence that can adapt and destroy faster than we can. And if we don’t all agree on what should be destroyed and what should live, we could very quickly throw the animal kingdom into chaos.

               If one farmer decides he will employ drones to hunt blue jays stealing his corn, but his neighbor only cares about crows, then the blue jays may to stay in one field, and the crows in the other. However, if across an entire township every farmer has different rules about what birds and insects are allowed in his farm, it may be impossible for the birds to keep track – and it would certainly be impossible for the insects. Crows will not be able to break out field maps and mark which farms have drones, and which ones don’t. Without a pattern for birds to adapt to, we may very quickly eliminate all birds in the area, along with many insects. The ability to have a perfect monoculture is just around the corner, but we may need to all come to an agreement on what we consider pests we want to eliminate, and what we’re willing to live with.

Of course, if we can’t decide, maybe machines will just make that decision for us?

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At the time of this writing, I am a student of computer science & crop science at Parkland College in Illinois. To learn more, check out my About Me page.