David Rose is Professor of Sustainable Agricultural Systems at Cranfield University. He leads the Change in Agriculture research group which focuses on understanding how agricultural transitions are affecting farming stakeholders on the ground. The group conducts work on innovation adoption, behaviour change, just transitions, technology ethics, policy co-design and farmer mental health. He will be speaking on the How can we improve our food security? panel on 27th March [hybrid].
Why does your research matter?
Farmers around the world are being told to do things differently in response to a growing population, climate change, water pollution, biodiversity loss and other pressures. Our ‘Change in Agriculture’ research group conducts research on agricultural transitions. We explore how farmers can be helped to adapt to new farming systems, technologies and policies, through good farm extension strategies and responsible innovation. We seek to understand how stressful transitions are affecting mental wellbeing in farming, as well as how farming communities can be included in the co-design of new policies. In essence, we ask the big questions of who wins and loses from agricultural transitions, who gets to decide and who needs the most support. This matters so that we do not leave those farmers behind who are least able to make the transition.
What drew you to it?
Growing up in a house backing onto farmland and a wetland nature reserve, I was always fascinated by the agri-environment and the multi-functional nature of the land – as a setting to produce food as well as looking after biodiversity. During my training in Geography at university, I became interested in ideas of power and normativity. Auvikki de Boon, a member of our group, shows that agricultural transitions in society are normative and political – decisions are made that affect the future and more powerful people tend to have more of a say in what that looks like. Put those things together – the agri-environment and normative, political choices – and there’s your inspiration to explore what is going on in our food systems. Who has the power to shape visions of food production? Who is most and least able to adapt to new ways of producing food? It’s important to shed further light on these questions through place-based research on how farmers are experiencing change in their everyday lives.
What do you see as the top scientific breakthroughs that have the most potential to address food security?
One thing to say first – whilst scientific breakthroughs have a key role to play, food security will not be solved by technology silver bullets alone. Food insecurity is caused by a complex web of factors – not only by a lack of food being produced, but by factors such as social inequality and corruption, which means that some people cannot afford nor access the food that is available. Growing more food using technology does not address these social and political issues.
However, there are exciting scientific breakthroughs with the potential to help, including gene editing to produce potentially higher yields which are more resistant to pests and diseases, as well as automated robotic technologies using artificial intelligence and machine learning to address labour shortages in some parts of the world and increase the precision with which we look after crops and animals. Precision livestock technology could monitor the health and welfare of livestock 24/7, leading to earlier interventions. Decision support tools can help farmers to collate and interpret the wealth of data that are now being collected on farms, leading to more evidence-based management. These technologies could help to create more food with less and more targeted inputs.
What are the main pros and cons of these?
All technologies have potential pros and cons. New innovations of all kinds are disruptive because they change the way something is done. Disruption is not necessarily a bad thing as it could lead to improvements. New precision agricultural technologies have the potential to use fewer chemical inputs on farmland, protecting biodiversity and saving money for the farmer. Robotic technologies could free up time for the farmer and attract a younger, skilled workforce to an ageing industry. Precision livestock and crop technology can help a farmer to look after individual plants and animals, offering individual care, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.
However, technology can be a double-edged sword. Whilst precision technologies could be used to transition towards more environmentally-friendly farming systems, they could be used to further intensify agriculture with more monocultures and larger herds. Robotic technologies could replace labour in areas where there is not a shortage of workers. Some farmers have the money, skills and infrastructure to embrace new digital technologies, whilst others do not. Some farmers worry about data ownership, loss of autonomy over their farm, an erosion of experience-based skills and a growing reliance on technology companies for repairs and upgrades that work with existing equipment.
Is science keeping ahead of the challenges the world is currently facing in terms of food security, including war and climate change?
As I said, science cannot always predict the next crisis. What it can do is help us continually improve how we produce food in a way that benefits people and the environment. We also need to recognise that science and technology alone are only a small part of the puzzle. Once solutions are found, they need to be adopted in practice. For many reasons, including lack of skills, finance, infrastructure, advisory support, trust and reliability, the pace of technological change in farming can be slow. It is here that we need more action – not just in creating the scientific solutions to food security, but in helping farmers co-design and implement them.
How do all the pressures farmers are under affect their mental health?
We know from research in the UK, Ireland, the US and beyond that farmers face multiple pressures that have a cumulative impact on their mental wellbeing. These include financial problems, isolation and loneliness, strained relationships, unpredictable weather, public criticism, crime and crop failure or animal disease. Recent research has also suggested that the requirement to make transitions – either being required to adopt digital tools, adhere to new environmental regulations, navigate more bureaucracy or leave farming altogether – is contributing to poor mental wellbeing.
What are the main implications of technology changes for animals?
Juliette Schillings in our group has been exploring this. On the one hand, precision livestock technologies, such as cameras, microphones and wearable devices can monitor individual animals 24/7. These technologies can help to alert farmers to health and welfare problems and potentially lead to earlier intervention, although at the moment they tend to be best at preventing occurrences of negative welfare rather than promoting positive welfare.
Other consequences are being explored, including the changed relationship between farmers and their livestock, on the one hand potentially reducing incidences of stressful handling, but on the other, possibly causing complacency or a loss of vital experiential knowledge. The ability to monitor individual animals could, in theory, lead to the creation of more mega-herds which may not be acceptable to the consumer. As with all technologies, there are pros and cons that need to be explored with equal vigour.