Contrary to some received ideas, farmers have, on average, more digital equipment than the rest of the population in France. Thus, 67% of them have a desktop computer, 60% a laptop, 42% a tablet and 71% a smartphone.
The livestock sector is also the most equipped of all agricultural production sectors: sensors, herd management software, milking, feeding or cleaning robots, etc. Fixed cameras for monitoring animals are an example of the most common equipment on farms.
What are we to make of this, when we know the current controversies surrounding breeding activities?
Will digital technologies be a lever to operate the necessary agroecological transition of livestock systems, allowing for finer and more individualized monitoring, limiting or even eliminating curative treatments?
Or are they, on the contrary, incompatible with the agroecological transition, as they are costly, contribute to global warming and replace human competences (surveillance, management)?
The idea of a possible synergy between digital technology and agroecology is therefore not unanimous, even within the scientific community.
From breeding clones to “bespoke” breeding
The promoters of digital technology at the service of the agroecological transition of livestock and agriculture in general defend the idea that technologies now make it possible to take advantage of the diversity of individuals within a herd, and no longer suffer from it.
For several years, the final model envisaged by some researchers was that of a herd formed by clones, all identical individuals. This should maximize performance while simplifying driving.
It is now accepted that diversity is an asset, as long as you know how to master it.
Thanks to the evolution of knowledge and digital tools, it is becoming possible to monitor biological processes in real time, for each individual (for certain species) and no longer systematically for an entire group. This is the concept of “tailor-made” creation.
Agriculture in the age of big data
It is worth remembering that agroecology is based on the mobilization of natural biological mechanisms (ecological processes), in order to avoid undesirable inputs, especially those whose production requires non-renewable resources, such as hormones or fertilizers, synthesis or drugs, including antibiotics.
For example, using legumes on pastures (clover, alfalfa, etc.) saves chemical fertilizers, thanks to their ability to capture atmospheric nitrogen. Plants with therapeutic properties in the range of free-range birds help to preserve animal health, etc.
To apply these principles, digital allows the production of data in large quantities (“big data”), linked together as part of a systemic approach. This process of acquiring a large number of data is called high-throughput phenotyping.
This data is then processed by bioinformaticians, statisticians or artificial intelligence specialists, whose aim is to identify the relationships between them.
For example, researchers have shown that pigs have an extensive vocal repertoire, with some sounds associated with positive emotions and others with negative emotions. This could be used for the purpose of monitoring animals on farms.
However, the massive use of digital is not without an impact from an environmental point of view: the infrastructures on which it depends are, in fact, very greedy for resources and, in particular, for rare earths.
Current estimates therefore predict a depletion of certain resources needed for digital technology in less than 20 years.
Avoid the risk of a profession emptied of its content
For the creator, the challenge of digital creation lies in the added value generated by the information made available to him.
Thus, it is very important to identify those that are useful to manage your creation system, to better understand the possible uses of digital technology and to avoid overloading creators with information. They can thus maintain meaning in their work and see their skills valued.
Digital allows creators to make informed decisions thanks to relevant data, without letting robots decide for them.
Human-animal relationships are in fact at the center of creative activities and affectivity is an integral part of it, with notions of pleasure or, on the contrary, suffering at work. The use of digital technology must not eliminate these dimensions that are the basis of the creator’s profession.
The risk of digital is to see your activity emptied of content and meaning, the tasks of monitoring animals being transferred to the monitoring of monitoring equipment. This can cause stress (too many alarms, breakdowns, malfunction) and requires new skills.
As a corollary, the possibility of introducing new technologies in livestock is also a potential source of motivation for young people and a means of encouraging vocations.
What economic gain in the long run?
The sometimes high cost of these technologies is a strong argument against their deployment, especially in small structures.
In order for breeders to integrate them into their system, it is necessary that they also allow savings, and that the income is at least equal and, if possible, higher than the previous situation (with easier work).
The saving paths made possible by these new technologies are essentially related to food and medicines.
For swine feed, for example, the potential savings are estimated at 8% for production costs, 25% for nitrogen and phosphorus consumption, 40% for nitrogen discharges and 6% for greenhouse gas emissions, if the intake is adjusted to the individual needs of each animal.
For medicines, a major challenge is to reduce the use of antibiotics and therefore the risk of antibiotic resistance, including for humans. Early detection of anomalies, before the appearance of symptoms detectable by the breeder, would help to move in this direction.
The monitoring of swine farms based on the vocalizations of the animals, presented above, is an example of this. Video camera systems in dairy cow stables or in buildings housing birds also make it possible to detect behavioral anomalies very early on, before the breeder can detect them.
Applications also for agropastoral systems
Agropastoral systems are systems in which animals explore open spaces, with spontaneous and highly diversified vegetation (pastoral areas include summer pastures, scrub, undergrowth, etc.).
It is therefore very difficult to have detailed knowledge of the state of the system, for example the food value of what animals consume.
Include users in reflections
The assessment of human and social impacts (breeders’ skills, surveillance pressure, social acceptability of animal surveillance potentially perceived as “delegated to machines”) will necessarily have to be carried out in collaboration with social sciences and humanities disciplines.
Our file “AGROECOLOGY”
This work must, obviously, include the creators themselves, in the framework of monitoring, surveys and above all participatory approaches, guaranteeing the acceptability and ownership of the innovations generated. The current development of reflections on participatory research finds a particularly appropriate field of application here.
This analysis was written by Stéphane Ingrand, deputy head of the research department “Animal Physiology and Livestock Systems” at the National Institute for Research in Agriculture, Food and the Environment (INRAE).
The original article was published on the website of The conversation.