CHINA Farmer monitoring chili crops with a tablet.

The State of Food and Agriculture 2022


  • Automation presents many opportunities for agricultural producers and agrifood systems generally, but uneven access and adoption across and within countries prevent realization of its full potential.
  • In particular, agricultural automation can raise productivity, build resilience, improve product quality and resource-use efficiency, reduce human drudgery and labour shortages, enhance environmental sustainability, and facilitate climate change adaptation and mitigation.
  • Automation in agriculture can contribute to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, not least SDG 1 (No Poverty) and SDG 2 (Zero Hunger) and those relating to environmental sustainability and climate change, and drive broader changes in agrifood systems by creating new entrepreneurial opportunities.
  • Automation can also create inequalities if it remains out of reach for some, especially small-scale and female agricultural producers. If it is not well managed, it can also have negative environmental consequences by contributing to, for example, monoculture.
  • To unleash the full potential of agricultural automation, technologies must be available, inclusive, accessible to all, and tailored to local conditions (i.e. they need to be scale-neutral), and they must improve environmental sustainability.
  • A key challenge is ensuring that technologies are adapted to local contexts and local innovation processes that are promoted, as well as building the capacity of producers to adopt and use such new technologies.

Technological change, driven and facilitated by processes of innovation, has been a key driver of socioeconomic transformation throughout the ages, bringing productivity and income gains, as well as improvements in human well-being. This applies to agrifood systems as it does to other sectors of the economy. Today, to nourish a constantly growing world population, we need to increase nutritious food production while addressing limited agricultural land availability, unsustainable natural resource use, increasing shocks and stresses, and the consequences of accelerating climate change. Hence, agrifood systems must meet the challenge of increasing productivity in a sustainable manner. There is an ever more urgent need to put in place new technological solutions that can make agricultural production more productive and sustainable across all its sectors – crops and livestock, fisheries and aquaculture, and forestry – and boost productivity levels in agrifood systems beyond primary production.

As technological change continues to transform our economies, recent advances in digital technologies, such as faster computers and mobile phones, sensors, machine learning, and artificial intelligence (AI), have led to ground-breaking equipment, transforming the use of machinery in agricultural tasks. As with other technologies – and innovations in general – these new technologies may complement or replace old ones. Sometimes older technologies and practices may be revived or repurposed for new uses. They have the potential to decouple not only much of the physical work from agricultural production, but also the mental work required to collect and analyse information and data and make decisions. They can therefore help implement precision agriculture1 by improving the timeliness of operations and allowing a more accurate and efficient application of inputs.

Not for the first time in human history, there are fears about the negative consequences of technological progress for labourers. In practice, the accepted wisdom that automation leads to loss of jobs and increased unemployment is not borne out by historical realities. This report argues that, on the contrary, automation, including digital technologies, can make agricultural production more resilient to shocks and stresses, such as drought and accelerating climate change. Agricultural automation can raise productivity, improve product quality, increase resource-use efficiency, alleviate labour shortages and promote decent employment by reducing human drudgery – in addition to enhancing environmental sustainability. While it must be recognized that introducing automation technologies, particularly if unsuited to a specific local context, can lead to socioeconomic challenges for some groups, including negative impacts on the labour market, such challenges can be addressed through appropriate policies and legislation, and these are discussed in the report. Equally challenging are barriers that can prevent the application of automation, in particular among poor small-scale producers, thus creating access inequalities.

Agricultural automation is of major relevance to several Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), not least SDG 1 (No Poverty) and SDG 2 (Zero Hunger). To the extent that agriculture around the world is receptive to automation, it can also drive progress towards SDG 9 (Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure), which calls for supporting and upgrading technological capabilities, research and innovation, especially in low-income countries. Likewise, if barriers to adoption are overcome, automation can play a role in closing the technological divide and promoting progress towards SDG 5 (Gender Equality), SDG 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth) and SDG 10 (Reduced Inequalities). Through its potential to provide safer working conditions and safer, higher quality food, it can contribute to progress towards SDG 3 (Good Health and Well-being). Finally, the successful adoption of automation solutions that enhance environmental sustainability can contribute to progress towards SDG 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation), SDG 7 (Affordable and Clean Energy), SDG 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production), SDG 13 (Climate Action), SDG 14 (Life below Water) and SDG 15 (Life on Land).

This report investigates how automation in agriculture, as well as in the early stages of the food supply chain, can contribute to achieving the SDGs and ensure positive impacts. It reviews the state of agricultural automation adoption, including trends in implementation, the drivers of these trends, and their potential socioeconomic impacts. It discusses a range of policy and legislative options and interventions that could maximize the benefits and minimize the risks of automation technologies. Chapter 1 defines agricultural automation, explains its relevance for sustainable development, and outlines the opportunities, challenges and trade-offs that new automation technologies can create or shape. A fundamental premise for the analysis in this report is that advances in agricultural automation can help humanity overcome numerous challenges associated with the need to increase nutritious food production sustainably, but that these are likely to create new challenges that need to be managed if we are to make the most of the potential that automation offers.

How did we get here?

The process of technological change in agricultural production is not new. History shows how humankind has constantly striven to reduce the toil of farming by developing ingenious tools and harnessing the power of fire, wind, water and animals. By 4000 BCE, Mesopotamian farmers were using ox-drawn ploughs,2 and water-powered mills emerged in China around 1000 BCE.3 Technological change has accelerated during the past two centuries, triggered by the discovery of steam power (with the emergence of steam threshers and ploughs by the mid-nineteenth century), and later reinforced by the rise of fossil-energy-powered tractors, harvesters and processing machines, as well as new food-preserving technologies, among others.4, 5 Such changes have allowed societies across the world to gradually reduce the drudgery of agricultural production and free agricultural producers from the heavy physical toil of farming. As a consequence, there is now less need for labour in primary agricultural production; workers are released for employment in other sectors, such as industry and services, children are free to go to school, and women can pursue non-agricultural employment opportunities or household activities. This has been accompanied by tremendous advances in other agricultural operations or inputs, such as seeds, fertilizers and irrigation – advances that led to the green revolution and allowed food production to expand, even with reduced labour input and limited expansion of farmland.6

This process of increased agricultural productivity and reallocation of labour away from farming is often referred to as agricultural transformation. As economies develop, labour-saving technologies push agricultural workers off farms while profitable activities in the non-farm sector simultaneously pull them towards the industry and services sectors.7, 8, 9 The share of the population working in agriculture thus declines as agricultural transformation advances. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, most people throughout the world lived in rural areas and depended on primary agricultural production for their livelihood. This is no longer the case for countries that have undergone deep agricultural transformation. In the United States of America, for example, only 1.4 percent of the workforce were employed in farming in 2020.10 Other high-income countries also have very small shares of their population directly employed on farms.

This agricultural transformation process does not occur in isolation but involves transformation of the whole economy. Indeed, the provision of sufficient, safe and nutritious food for expanding and increasingly urbanized populations, requires investments not only in agricultural production, but also in transport, storage and food processing, as well as other physical and market infrastructures. Access to roads and transport is necessary to enable agricultural producers to source adequate agricultural inputs, including physical and human capital, and have access to lucrative markets for their produce.

The process of automation in agriculture today is occurring within the context of evolving agrifood systems. Indeed, automation in agriculture has implications for agrifood systems beyond primary agriculture and is itself affected by developments beyond primary production. Automation in primary production can be a driver of transformation in agrifood systems, not least by creating new entrepreneurial opportunities both upstream and downstream. Similarly, automation in upstream and downstream sectors has implications for automation in primary production. The effects will depend on the dynamics of agrifood systems, their components, and the bidirectional linkages between them.

Technology uptake is also a gradual process,11 requiring practice, testing and adaptation in various contextual realities, and its impacts take time to manifest themselves. For example, while the rise of mechanized tractors undoubtedly brought many benefits, it also had negative environmental impacts – in terms of deforestation, loss of biodiversity and excessive use of fossil fuels – which took decades to become apparent.12, 13 A similar reasoning may be applied to the technologies adopted in the green revolution; they undoubtedly brought substantial yield improvements, but the long-term environmental costs have been very high in some places.13

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