Agriculture has always had numerous outside impacts affecting its successes and challenges. Technology leads the list of impacts, both positive and negative, that have dramatically changed food production over a short period of time. I am certain at the speed at which we develop technology that it will remain the greatest factor in how we farm and ranch in the future.

Autonomous farming, genetic enhancement, digital information, environmental factors and consumer demands will drive technological advances. Even though we struggle to logistically feed our world with current abundant production, many technological advances have enabled us to produce surpluses of food at least in a large part of the world. It is hard to predict production capacity with a continued growing world population and inequity in food distribution that leaves a billion people chronically hungry today.

Technology based on sound science seems the obvious solution to continued food production for the world. If this is true, we need to consider many factors. I plan to focus on the human factor for this message.

From the beginning, automation has been used to overcome human shortcomings, especially for jobs where a human is likely to get distracted or tired or simply cannot achieve the level of precision required. Considering this, will we continue to accept machines replacing humans, forcing our workforce to dramatically change? Is there a limit to replacing humans with machines? An analogy I heard is unlikely but describes what I mean: To deal with injuries in football, could humans be replaced with machines and would football fans still enjoy the game? This is what some are suggesting may happen in food production. Machines may take over production agriculture. Is this acceptable?

New technology to produce “cultured meat” exists, where stem cells from beef are taken to reproduce more cells that result in “lab-produced ground beef” or “lab-produced steak.” If we solely look at the science, it might be logical. If we consider the human factor, is it worth the technology effort? Would we need ranchers or would consumers even eat the product?

Minimally, we need to adopt truth-in-labeling laws, so the consumer is given correct information to determine purchases.

I am confident the choices we make in the development of technological advances will only get harder. It will be the responsibility of consumers, our government, world governments, business and organizations to take responsibility in determining the value of technological advances when compared to the “human factor.” We must show the positives and negatives, and the consequences of not embracing technology that can improve the value of our businesses and, in turn, lives.

The human factor cannot be ignored. At the end of the development of any new idea or concept, we must always take into account its impact to humans. Humans have the ability to make the necessary moral judgments to maintain our planet and the success of societies around the world.

– NDFU President Mark Watne