Will Robots Soon Replace Farm Workers?

Screenshot: advanced.farm/tech

By Julia Fine, ODP Contributing Writer

The COVID-19 pandemic is “ratchet[ing] up the pressure” to automate harvesting processes, Civil Eats reported. Alongside the rising cost of labor and the increasingly dangerous conditions caused by wildfires, more and more farmers are considering this move to automate their harvests with robots replacing up to half the farmworkers currently needed. Indeed, it also seems financially attractive for automation startups as well, with several companies growing into this market, like advanced.farm, which raised $10 million from investors through last June.

Why This Matters: As Twilight Greenaway wrote for Civil Eats, “If the people doing the work on farms are getting sick, the logic goes, why not just replace them with machines?” Well, as you can imagine, automating the harvests has immense consequences — it will greatly reduce the number of jobs in agriculture. While many argue it will give access to “better jobs” to people, as Maria Cardenas, the executive director of Santa Cruz community ventures, notes, “I don’t think a worker who is now running a machine is going to earn so much more . . . to make up for the lost household wages when three people are let go.”  This is part of a larger trend toward automation in many sectors.  

Robotic Reasoning

Where does the impetus to replace workers with robots come from? As some researchers argue, “a growing need for crops that are planted, weeded and harvested with decreased direct human involvement…in turn can reduce labor costs and improve yield.” John Seabrook also reported in a New Yorker article last year that seasonal labor has “become much more scarce, and more expensive—making it difficult for growers of apples, citrus, berries, lettuce, melons, and other handpicked produce-aisle items to harvest their crops.”

And COVID-19 has only accelerated these pressures. “We see a kind of short-term positive shock in the attractiveness of what we do. But we are also seeing increased discussion around automation,” said Farmwise CEO Sébastien Boyer to Greenaway. “By and large, what I think is going to happen during the crisis is a faster push for things that makes the overall supply chain less reliant on the uncertainty of manual work being done in the fields.”

Larger Implications

There are other related implications next to the potential loss of jobs. As Samir Doshi, a Race and Technology Fellow at Stanford University, told Greenaway, “The consequences aren’t just people being put out of jobs. It’s people being pushed out of their homes, their country, their communities.” Doshi continues, “It is definitely possible to have dramatically cascading effects on communities and regions for what automation does.”

Doshi draws an analysis with coal mining in Appalachia. “It did make mining much more efficient; it saved a number of costs…[but former mineworkers] didn’t get other jobs within the industry, which is what is being promised in agtech. And they did not move up the career ladder.”

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