We’ve all heard about how the robots are coming for our jobs. You’ve probably also heard about how wonderful automation is and how it can increase productivity and efficiency.
Agriculture is one of the many sectors in which automation is becoming more prevalent. Agricultural tech, known collectively as agtech, is transforming farming with its robots, sensors and algorithms.
The debate over whether the increasing rate of automation is a good or a bad thing is especially pronounced in agriculture. The sector has experienced job loss at the hands of technology before. It’s also facing extreme new challenges driven by a growing world population, an aging workforce and environmental changes.
History of Technology in Agriculture
Around the end of the industrial revolution, more than half of American workers were employed on farms. Since then, the portion of agricultural jobs in the U.S. economy has fallen to below two percent.
Technology was a primary reason for that shift. Within that timeframe, tractors and electrical machinery replaced horse-drawn machinery and a substantial portion of the manual labor involved in farm work.
The increased efficiency brought on by agricultural technology increased the output of farms and enabled them to produce more food. This allowed them to hire fewer workers and enabled workers to move into other industries. This increased efficiency also lowered the costs of food. While the average U.S. family spent more than 40 percent of their income on food in 1900, today they spend around 15 percent.
Modern technology, including self-driving tractors, precision agriculture and crop sensors, is continuing this trend of increasing the efficiency of farms. A Japanese company called Spread is working on building the first fully automated lettuce farming operation by incorporating indoor vertical farming and hydroponics. This approach will increase yields per square meter and reduce the risk of contamination, Minako Ando of Spread’s PR division says.
As farms incorporate automation, we’ll see increased efficiency, productivity and safety, as occurred following the industrial revolution.
While some may see a reduced need for staff as a negative, this will decrease the costs of running a farm. It will also enable farms to increase the speed and accuracy with which they accomplish transplantation and harvesting activities.
Looking back at Spread’s automated lettuce production system, the company seeks to create a new business model for farming that leads to profit stability. More consistent income could let farmers hire people on short notice for brief periods to deal with pressing needs such as seasonal fluctuations in demand, thereby stimulating the economy.
On many farms, technology will not replace all of a farm’s workers. A McKinsey study looked at various occupations and determined how much of its work could potentially be automated. It gives agriculture an automation potential of 60 percent.
These kinds of advanced agtech technologies will lead to the loss of some jobs in the sector. Various studies detail the recent loss of manufacturing jobs in the U.S. and pin a large portion of the blame on automation. A Ball State University study describes the decline in U.S. manufacturing jobs from 2000 to 2010, following a period of growth in the decade prior.
These impacts may differ slightly when it comes to agriculture, but the overall trend will largely be the same.
The consensus among economists is that increased automation will create challenges related to employment in the short-term but will provide long-term benefits.
To get an idea of how the introduction of agtech will play out, we just need to look back at the history of new technologies that reduced the need for labor. Although these innovations were often met with fear and resentment, they did not lead to mass unemployment or poorer societies.
The 48 percent of American workers who lost their agricultural jobs due to new electrical machinery did not remain jobless but found employment in other industries.
In the instance of Spread, the company distributes its lettuce to approximately 2,300 stores throughout Japan. The company’s marketing team takes handles all production needs in-house, ranging from product packaging designs to storefront displays, which leads to less production employment and more distribution employment.
“Although robotic technology can substitute for human tasks in some cases, often the robotic technology takes the repeatable and simple routine tasks that normally require physical labor,” Ando, of the company Spread, said. “Human jobs are thus shifted to more creative and rewarding work such as marketing and R&D.”
The human population is one that continually progresses, through technology and other means. This progression is inevitable and applies to all sectors of the economy, including agriculture. To help ensure that we can make this transition smoothly, we need to focus on learning new skills and distributing information that will enable everyone to take advantage of these new technologies.