China is moving ahead with a huge robot farming pilot that could one day put many of the country's 250 million farmers out of work

  • For the next seven years, China will run a pilot program to replace farmers with robots.
  • The program features unmanned tractors, rice transplanters, and pesticide applicators.
  • A rise in automated farming could produce greater yields and cheaper food production.
  • However, a rise in automated farming also threatens to put many of China’s 250 million farmers out of work.

China has launched a pilot program to replace farmers with robots, putting millions of people at risk of losing their jobs.

The seven-year pilot, which is running in Jiangsu Province, features unmanned tractors, pesticide applicators, and rice transplanters, according to Bloomberg. These technologies are not yet widely used in China.

Millions of unproductive, polluting farms in China could be modernised through the program, according to Bloomberg. In a large portion of rural China, households operate more than one small plot of farmland. Scientists say this structure is inefficient because it keeps grain yields low.

With a rise in automated farming, China could experience greater yields and cheaper food production. Coupled with data, automation could lead to a decrease in the use of fertiliser and pesticides, as machines would know exactly where these chemicals need to be added. A new farming model could also alleviate losses in productivity due to an ageing workforce.

But more automation means fewer farmers will be able to find work. Although the percentage of the Chinese workforce involved in farming has dropped – from 55% in 1991 to 18% in 2017 – about 250 million people are still farmers, and many risk losing their jobs if automation becomes more common.

Rising incomes in China have led city residents to start consuming significantly more milk and dairy than in the past. Feeding China’s 1.4 billion people is also complicated by urbanisation, which has eliminated millions of acres of arable land. Of the land that remains, about 20% is contaminated by heavy metals from industrial development, according to Bloomberg.

In the United States, automated farming goes back at least 16 years, when Deere & Co. revealed a system for applying GPS to tractors. Before that, tractors would waste a lot of land and fuel: As tractors laid seeds in rows on a field, they would go over part of the previous row each time. The GPS system allowed farmers to drive straight and avoid this overlap.

GPS has since also been used to mark areas that have pest infestations or variable soil, which allows farmers to make informed decisions based on data.

Some US farms also use robotic milking machines; there are currently 2,000 of them located around the country. Although these machines have been sold in Europe since 1992, US demand has accelerated in the last couple years, Steve Fried, North America sales manager for Levy, a Dutch agriculture technology company, previously told Business Insider.

Automation in China could help create new jobs in other areas; while robots would take over numerous tasks, people will still need to code, regulate, maintain, and repair machines. Those who stick to farming will need to develop new skills to use the emerging technology.

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