La Chine lance un programme pour remplacer ses fermiers par des robots

C’était une question de mois, et nous y voilà : la Chine ouvre la voie à l’automatisation massive de l’agriculture. Un programme pilote sur sept ans a été annoncé en juin, prévoyant de remplacer une partie de la main d’œuvre des fermiers chinois par des robots, dans la région de Jiangsu. Le but est simple : permettre de meilleurs rendements, le tout à moindre coût. Et tant pis pour les centaines de millions d’emplois que ce plan menace de faire disparaître.

On ne vous apprendra rien en disant que la Chine n’est pas du genre à se satisfaire de situations de dépendance extérieure, que ce soit sur le plan politique ou économique. Or, pour faire face au challenge de nourrir 1,4 milliards d’individus, le pays a dû faire des concessions : ses terres n’étant plus en mesure de nourrir l’ensemble de sa population, le gouvernement a d’abord incité les entreprises à acheter des terres aux quatre coins du monde.

La stratégie agroalimentaire chinoise

L’enjeu est d’autant plus important que la classe moyenne chinoise, en s’élargissant, change ses habitudes de consommations, se rapprochant des goûts et habitudes de consommation des pays occidentaux. En 2016, la Chine consommait près de trois fois plus de viande qu’en 1990. La consommation de produits laitiers a quadruplé chez les citadins entre 1995 et 2010, et a été multipliée par six dans les zones rurales. Or, élever plus d’animaux suppose de faire pousser plus de céréales pour les nourrir eux-mêmes (on vous passe l’impact que cela a sur le climat).



Capture d’écran de la séquence sur la production de nourriture de masse du film Samsara / Crédit : Ron Fricke et Mark Magison

Les ressources agricoles chinoises sont pourtant bien minces. La terre ne manque pas : le pays dispose de 135 millions d’hectares cultivables. Mais les rendements et l’efficacité de la production sont loin d’être optimisés. L’Empire du Milieu est le spécialiste des micro-fermes traditionnelles. Il y existe 200 millions exploitations agricoles familiales, chacune entretenue par une poignée de personnes, avec un équipement technique souvent rudimentaire, et donc souvent aux rendements modestes. Les paysans sont en outre majoritairement vieillissants, ce qui n’aide pas quand il s’agit de booster la productivité agricole du pays. Il était donc plus que temps pour le géant asiatique de revoir sa stratégie agroalimentaire.

Des robots pour l’agro

Pour cela la Chine a misé sur la robotique. Le gouvernement a annoncé le lancement en juin dernier d’un programme pilote sur sept ans d’agriculture autonome. Le test aura lieu dans la région de Jiangsu, à l’est du pays et aura pour but de moderniser les petites fermes peu productives.



Des machines européennes et américaines permettaient de produire, en quatre heures, le travail que 30 travailleurs auraient mis une vingtaine de jours à faire

Le gouvernement aidera donc les fermiers à se munir de technologies telles que des tracteurs et drones autonomes capables de travailler la terre et d’appliquer des pesticides, herbicides et fertilisants, ou encore des machines capables de transplanter le riz.

Ces technologies permettent d’une part un meilleur ajustement des quantités de produits chimiques – ce qui, dans le contexte chinois n’est pas du luxe puisque les paysans chinois utilisent trois fois plus de fertilisant que nécessaire, polluant fortement les sols jusqu’à avoir dangereusement contaminé 20 %d’entre eux. Mais l’objectif est surtout de permettre de meilleurs rendements à moindre coût. Dans le cadre d’un reportage sur l’industrialisation de l’économie agronome chinoise, National Geographic a rencontré en février Liu Lin. Le jeune entrepreneur y raconte que ses machines européennes et américaines permettent de produire, en quatre heures, le travail que 30 travailleurs auraient mis une vingtaine de jours à faire. Le tout manipulable depuis un smartphone.



De 55 % à 18 % de fermiers

Rien que de très classique dans ce processus de mécanisation de l’agriculture, qu’ont connu par le passé les pays occidentaux. Mais le projet d’automatisation du gouvernement chinois semble ici d’une ampleur inédite : si le pilote s’avère convaincant au terme des sept années de test et qu’il est étendu à l’ensemble du pays, c’est une bonne partie des 250 millions de fermiers chinois qui pourrait voir ses emplois disparaître. Le pourcentage de travailleurs agricoles chinois est d’ailleurs déjà en chute libre, passant de 55 % de la population en 1991 à 18 % en 2018. Mais ces 18 % restants risquent de payer cher la réponse à la demande de la part de la population de manger comme elle le souhaite, c’est-à-dire de manière plus carnée et plus lactée.

Capture d’écran de la séquence sur la production de nourriture de masse du film Samsara / Crédit : Ron Fricke et Mark Magison

Cette automatisation créera-t-elle autant d’emplois qu’elle en détruira, comme cela est pronostiqué dans d’autres domaines ? Sinon, et si le programme pilote est généralisé, les fermiers qui risquent de perdre leur métiers pourront-ils se reconvertir dans la maintenance de robots, l’analyse de data ou la programmation ? Les 250 millions d’agriculteurs chinois doivent déjà se poser la question.

 

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