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Automation in the Fruit and Vegetable industry

Automation is as an increasing occurrence in the fruit and vegetable industry; not only in the pack and processing sector but also increasingly in the harvesting sector. Many suppliers cite the reasons for increased automation as increasing labour costs, shortages in labour and increased demand. As we have seen in many of the articles in course, specifically Cheng et al and Dancing with Robots, the agriculture industry is particularly subject to an increase automation due to its high concentration of low-skilled labourers in its labour force. However, one of the main debates for both worker and supplier is over the extent of automation; whether robots should fully replace workers in picking, preparation and packing or if robots should simply complement the workers in these tasks. The deciding factor in this argument is likely to be a battle of efficiency and cost.

As mentioned earlier there seem to be two areas producers can develop in terms of automation: Either use machines to complement workers i.e. smart tractors, gps tracking and weather-modelling systems, adopting this technology will not necessarily contribute to a decrease in human labour but instead augment labourers with better knowledge or increased efficiency. Another option is to introduce technology to replace human labour with machines, examples of this are now prevalent in the sorting, packaging and in some cases, the picking industry where machines such as Processing Lines effectively replace the workers who would have manually sorted the fruits, needing only one or two supervisors per production line, drastically reducing labour costs. Labour costs, according to (Kandel, 2008; Vineland Research and Innovation, 2013) account for around 40% of total farm operation costs and so many firms are desperately looks for ways to reduce this There are many instances where machinery is used to complement workers such as the asparagus spider below, this effectively doubles the output and efficiency per worker meaning that less workers need to be employed per field. This kind of automation has implications for the labour market especially considering many of those employed in these jobs are fairly low-skilled and that increasing adoption of machines is likely due to the routine nature of the tasks.

Effects on the labour market

Some researchers suggest that continued automation of the agricultural industry will exacerbate social, economic and racial inequalities within the labour market, as well as impact skills development for this demographic. As in the pie chart below, a high majority of workers in agriculture in both the US as well as EU are low-skilled migrant workers who often have restricted access to ICT and tools that could be used to improve skill level. Additionally, due to restrictions on immigration in both economic areas many agricultural firms have struggled to find enough labour and so have turned to automation. However, many researchers reason that automation increases profits, increases the wellbeing of producers and reduces environmental impacts. If these profits can then be re-invested into the industry it can create new workplace opportunities for marginalized low-skilled workers in the form of education and training programs to build a more inclusive workforce. The Ontario Agricultural College (OAC) states that there are four jobs for each graduate entering Ontario's food and agricultural sector, and that this labour gap is expected to increase (Ontario Agricultural College, 2017), meaning the demand for skilled labour in the agriculture is increasing and is not being supplied adequately while the low-skilled labour is being substituted by machines, increasingly marginalizing the majority of agriculture workers, increasing skill and wage inequality.

In my opinion automation in the agriculture sector is inevitable; we have seen that automation brings greater efficiency as well as substantial reductions in labour cost all of which lead to an increased profit. Coupled with tighter immigration policy in many of the countries considering automation, many producers are facing labour shortages, yet another incentive for automation. The increase in automation will lead to an increase in demand for skilled labourers to maintain the machines as a form of skill biased technological change (SBTC), which will in turn stagnate the wages of low-skilled workers further contributing to wage inequality. The question seems to be, to what extent will these increased profits be used to retrain and educate the low-skilled labourers currently working in the sector? There are however some barriers to automation, crop price is still relatively low for most producers. Thus, capital-intensive investments like automation are out of reach for many producers. To conclude, I am of the opinion that increased automation is extremely likely to continue and that the resulting SBTC will lead to an increase in wage/skill inequality and that very little can be done about this due to the current economic/political climate. Unless some of the profits gleaned from this automation are used to retrain low-skilled workers we will see an increasing wage gap between skilled and unskilled labour in the agriculture market.

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