Sunday, April 20, 2014

Why robots, revisited

The list of problems is uncomfortably long, and all too familiar...

  • interruption of cycling of biological materials back to land
  • routine tillage accelerating loss of soil carbon
  • soil loss to wind and water
  • reduced ability of remaining soil to absorb and retain water
  • rapid runoff and increased flooding downstream
  • diminished soil fertility and overuse of fertilizers
  • silting and nutrient loading of streams and estuaries
  • overuse of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides
  • loss of diversity of native flora and fauna
  • loss of diversity in crop species
  • dietary diversity only maintained by long-distance shipping
  • pressure to produce more irrespective of long-term consequences

Most of these problems are addressable by means of better practices...

  • cover crops and mulching
  • crop rotation, polyculture, and perennials
  • recycling of biological materials back to the land
  • maintenance and continual improvement of local crop varieties
  • biological pest controls (free-range chickens, parasitic wasps, etc.)
  • biological and mechanical weed controls
  • minimal cultivation, and that on the contour
  • controlling runoff near the source with terraces and small dams
  • recovering silt from above dams and returning it to the land
  • scaling livestock operations to what available land can provide and absorb
  • hedges, shelter belts, and native-flora waterways
  • providing food and habitat for wildlife

The problem with this set of practices is that, for the most part, they require more attention to detail and don't scale as easily as conventional practice, so they are hard to justify in terms of the farmer's bottom line.

Automation in the form of small robots, operating without constant supervision, and capable of going about farming the right way, could close that gap.

Unfortunately, for most of us, this is a collection of technologies that largely have yet to be created.

On the other hand, the sooner we make it a priority, the sooner it will happen, and the sooner we can get on with the job of healing the planet.

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