Yellow Vest Protest at Ag Robotics Conference Raises Ghosts of GMOs’ Past

Yellow Vest Protest at Ag Robotics Conference Raises Ghosts of GMOs’ Past

Yellow Vest protesters interrupt a presentation by Thomas Engel of John Deere during the third annual International Forum of International Robotics (FIRA) in Toulouse, France.

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The unexpected presence of Yellow Vest (gilets jaunes) protestors at the recent International Forum of Agricultural Robotics (FIRA) in Toulouse, France, brings disquieting echoes of an earlier chapter in agricultural technology history: opposition to the introduction of genetically modified crops in the 1990s.

I was then an ag journalist then covering biotechnology for what are now CropLife and AgriBusiness Global magazines, and I regularly reported the certainty that companies such as Monsanto, Syngenta, and DuPont had about consumers’ eventual embrace of GMOs. After all, the public doesn’t want farmers to use pesticides, the reasoning went. Wouldn’t transgenic crops such as Bt corn reduce widespread use of synthetic crop protection chemicals?

Many countries did in fact approve the use of GMOs — most prominently the U.S., Canada, Australia, Brazil, and India.

But not most of Europe. Though much of biotechnology’s beginnings came in European universities, institutes, and R&D companies, consumer opposition to GMOs across the European Union has permanently blunted the planting of biotech crops there. Today only Spain registers as a blip among countries with hectares planted to genetically modified crops.

Will the same happen in Europe to ag robotics? Maybe not. But one can see early parallels to public reaction to GMOs. Much like their predecessors in biotechnology, robotics developers today brim with confidence their technology will bring an unalloyed good. After all, the workforce of the 21st century doesn’t want jobs that are dirty, dangerous, and demeaning, the thinking goes. Won’t robotics solve farmers’ widespread labor problems? In fact, discussions at the FIRA conference, in only its third year, have progressed to topical areas assuming wider adoption, such as grower financing and insuring of robotic units.

Interestingly, it was at FIRA a year ago that the sticky subject of robotics’ potential impact on farming labor was raised. Then as now the widespread belief was that farms will never be 100% automated, that seasonal farm labor eventually will go by the wayside but that permanent labor will stay and be redeployed to other more value-added areas of the farm.

Try telling that to the Yellow Vests. In fact, some attendees at this year’s FIRA tried to do just that: argue for robotics’ higher good. But the protestors — behind their banners reading “Farmers, Animals, No Robots” and “Unplug Them All” — wouldn’t hear of it. All they see are more jobs taken away, more dominance by big technology, more dehumanization.

Reasons for Resistance

Much analysis since the 1990s has tried to explain why Europeans have developed differing views on biotechnology compared with the rest of the world. Not all of it has to do with the safety or environmental impact of GMOs. Much of it is cultural. Quality food and the romance of the local farmer are central to much of European culture, and many consumers don’t want either tampered with. Further, many in wealthier countries such as the U.K., France, and Germany distrust large multinational corporations and watched with alarm as historic seed breeders were gobbled up so their products could become vessels of biotechnology to the field.

Robotics developers for the most part are still smaller entities deploying technologies for regional adaptations. But Blue River Technologies was acquired by John Deere, and Bonirob is the product of Bosch Deepfield Robotics. If robotics follows the same path of, say, the biopesticide industry — which initially was a collection of small- and medium-sized companies but now has attracted the likes of Bayer, Corteva, and BASF — then almost certainly more multinational companies will enter the field.

And if consumers enamored of the image of the noble farmer toiling to bring them a bounteous harvest instead see autonomous steel vehicles roving day and night through humanless fields, opposition to robotics may grow. The same goes for the impact of rising nationalism, not just in France but in many other countries including the U.S. where an increasingly marginalized labor class agitates to bring jobs back to the working man and woman.

All of this is to say that as the ag robotics industry continues to mature, it will do well to keep one eye cocked on public perception of its technologies and work to continually communicate the benefits of robotics to society as a whole, not just to farmers. As Naïo Technologies co-founder and FIRA organizer Amyeric Barthes noted at the beginning of this year’s conference, “Robotics has to prove its value, as tractors did in the past. It is a long and hard way, but that is the challenge that we are choosing to take up.”

If Europe’s experience with GMOs is any guide, not everyone will see the inherent good of automation. It would be deeply ironic if the region that gave rise to multiple robotics developers and the world’s first ag robotics conference itself became a robotics-free zone because a majority of its citizens — whether they wear yellow vests or not — came to demand that it be so.