Robocrop

The farmer rises early (lots to do)
Eats breakfast, settles in his comfy chair,
Logs on to FarmCommand Pro (Version Two).
From deep within a datahub somewhere
Instructions are dispatched. Now on the screen
The big John Deere pops up: tasks verified,
The engine fires and, unmanned, the machine
Rolls off to work, with laser beams to guide
Its every move. The farmer nods. A wink
Of infra-red detectors in the shed
Tells him how much the calves have had to drink:
Another click, and all the beasts are fed.
New window. Scroll-down menu: highlight ‘Hive’.
Check status, scan for viruses, click ‘Run’.
A hum of minute motors and they’re live;
The day’s first wave of drone strikes has begun,
While through the whispering stems, unheard, unseen
More tiny workers fan across the land
As programmed, picking wheat and barley clean
Of pests and weeds too small for any hand.
And all the while, beyond the empty skies,
The sleepless satellites are on patrol
Like gangmasters with hard, all-seeing eyes,
Reporting ceaselessly to Ground Control
With data from each square inch of the fields.
The farmer smiles; he’s constantly on top
Of fertilisers, pests, projected yields
And profits from this season’s robocrop.
No senseless labour in the heartless sun;
No wasted effort; everything exact
And micro-managed, all resources run
For optimum production, based on fact
And real-time information – farms reduced
To mere facilities; a factory floor
Where food’s no longer grown, but just produced
According to a new, unnatural law.
So, with a robot made for every task,
Our mastery of Nature is complete.
There’s only one more question left to ask:
Is this the kind of food we want to eat?

 

On a long drive up the M40 last week, I listened to Costing the Earth on BBC Radio 4, which investigated how “satellite technology and advances in robotics are set to revolutionise the future of farming”. It was fascinating, but I have to say I also found it absolutely chilling – it seemed to be predicting the end of everything I know and love about farms, farming and the countryside. There’s a good deal wrong with current agricultural practices, of course, but if this is the answer, I’m not sure we’re asking all the right questions yet. N.

(NB There’s no such software as FarmCommand Pro Version Two. Or at least, not yet!)

Power plants

Photosynthetic

From the air they softly suck the gas
That, one day, could kill us all.
Unseen, their chloroplasts
Surge and jostle to catch the sunlight:
Microscopic power stations
Blanketing the world,
Making fuel enough
To heat, light and move us
Six times over, while emitting only
The elements of life itself.
In due season
They seduce our senses courting bees
Then freely let their future fall
Into our waiting, hungry hands.
They have no voice
But that the breeze bestows;
No locomotion of their own, yet set
The earth itself astir,
Heaving, splitting – and, when they are gone,
Surrendering to gravity,
Water and the wind.
Without them, we would suffocate,
Starve, sleep unsheltered, till
We stumble to a sweating, shivering end.
This we know
And so
In labs, the white-coats burn through time and millions
In their attempts to do what Nature
Cracked a billion years ago.
While she continues, quiet and unremarked,
In every leaf and blade of grass.

Inspired by last night’s BBC documentary Botany – A Blooming History. Photosynthesis is so easy to take for granted, yet it’s the most fundamental process on earth. During the programme, they showed some leading-edge research being done at the University of Glasgow that’s aiming to reproduce photosynthesis in the laboratory. It’s important work, potentially unlocking unlimited sources of free, clean energy. The scientists are using electricity, platinum electrodes and all kinds of complex apparatus to separate water into its constituent elements, hydrogen and oxygen. Something the humblest plants have been doing, using nothing but sunlight, for a thousand million years, and we’re still decades away from fully understanding, let alone copying.