Can robots save food production?
Monday, 4th October 2021 by Kerry Rankine
slug on grass

You might have read George Monbiot's recent article about our failure to see our impact on nature as a whole – and how that reductive mindset hampers our efforts to curb those impacts. Using the example of a stranded North Atlantic right whale, he eloquently summarises the multiple and cumulative threats that many species face from human activity. 

The article and its implications were in my mind today as I read an article on a website for CHAP, a UK agri-tech organisation funded by Innovate UK, which is funded by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy – i.e. you. 

The article is about a project to develop robots that will kill slugs. Sounds amazing! Slugs are annoying! Just ask any of our growers who have lost seedlings and other plants to their little jaws.


Joined-up thinking

But no matter how annoying, we know that slugs are a vital part of the eco-system. 

As the Wildlife Trust says: “Slugs and snails are very important. They provide food for all sorts of mammals, birds, slow worms, earthworms, insects and they are part of the natural balance. Upset that balance by removing them and we can do a lot of harm. Thrushes in particular thrive on them.” 

The SlugBot post comes from CHAP's website, which has a lovely picture on the front page of the Earth seen from space and says this: “CHAP’s vision is for the UK to be a global leader in the development of applied agri-technologies to help secure our future by nourishing a growing population sustainably while delivering economic, environmental and health benefits to society.” 

CHAP’s members include agri-tech companies and various university departments including ones focusing on sustainability.

But the businesses, researchers and innovators who have come up with the SlugBot “solution” are failing to join up their thinking on food production and biodiversity in exactly the way that Monbiot described in his article. 

This is not an anti-science or anti-tech stance. We need more scientific research into areas such as soils and beneficial microorganisms. We need to develop more technical solutions, such as alternative plant-based foods that actively benefit ecological systems (kelp anyone?). 


Put the money into agroecological research

Huge amounts of cash, scientific expertise and focus have been sent down the “business as usual” route, when agroecological farming has been effectively starved of resources and investment, as noted by the recent National Food Strategy report. 

We need more investment in farmers and the other growers following organic and agroecological principles, who are managing to produce food – good food, despite the odd nibbled leaf. We need to produce food in ways that start with what works for the land and nature as a whole. And we need to call out the so-called solutions that are leading us down an ecological dead end. 

Author name: 
Kerry Rankine