The future role of labour in agriculture and horticulture is now very much up for grabs, according to two new policy reports published this month. Faced with a potential decrease in supply of low-skill migrant labour and the phased introduction of the National Living Wage (NLW), and with a high degree of "routineness" in its lower- skilled tasks, food and farming stands out as the sector of the economy most ripe for automation, according to Robot Wars: Automation & the Labour Market by London-based social policy think tank the Resolution Foundation.
"What the UK needs - with its high employment, terrible productivity performance and low investment - is more robots," according to report author Adam Corlett.
The report puts farming among the sectors of the economy with the highest "relative probability of computerisation", behind only forestry, legal and accounting. It calculates that 42 per cent of its workers will be affected by the NLW by 2020. It is also among the sectors with the highest proportion of EU migrant labour, along with food manufacture, "domestic personnel" and "accommodation".
"While it is not yet clear what controls on immigration the UK will have after leaving the EU, sectors that are particularly reliant on EU migration will need to plan for a reduction in labour availability," the report notes. "This will force business and Government to make some pretty big calls on what investment and labour supply will look like in a post-Brexit economy. For sectors like agriculture, further automation...will require a major shift in investment to become a reality."
This echoes an influential 2013 report by US economists Carl Frey and Michael Osborne, who cited agriculture and food processing as among the sectors most susceptible to automation over the next two decades, claiming this trend could do away with up to 47 per cent of all US jobs.
"Looking backwards there has been a strong link between the 'routineness' of occupations and their decline," said Corlett. But recent labour history also "provides some reassurance that the overall negative consequences of automation are easy to overstate".
The Food Research Collaboration's report Agricultural Labour in the UK also makes the link between labour availability, cost and automation. "Since agricultural businesses have typically been slow to take up new technologies compared to other sectors, there is potential for a particularly stark process of catch-up in the agricultural sector," states author Stephen Devlin of New Economics Foundation.
"A potential cause and consequence of the increased use of agricultural robotics could be a reduction in unskilled migrant labour. These workers are potentially the most easily substitutable for machines and, in the context of potential restrictions on immigration in a post-EU Britain, perhaps also the positions that will become increasingly difficult to fill."
Foods such as fruit and vegetables, of which the UK is a large net importer, "are particularly labour intensive" while those it exports, such as cereals and dairy, "have relatively low labour requirements" and also happen to be "the sectors most amenable to automation", the report points out.
Given this, "an export growth strategy is unlikely to lead to significantly more jobs in UK agriculture; indeed, if growing our export market involves displacing other types of food production, such as horticulture, it could reduce job numbers further", it claims.
By contrast, a strategy to reduce the UK food and drink deficit "might focus on reducing imports", entailing greater domestic fruit and vegetable production and so "lead to an increase in the demand for agricultural labour" - though this increase "would be likely to be met by migrant labour supply, unless wages and conditions can be improved to such an extent that significant numbers of domestic workers became attracted to the sector".
Public health policy aims include higher consumption of fruit and vegetables relative to meat, entailing a switch to UK agricultural production, and fewer processed and sugary foods, which are generally produced from commodities grown outside the UK. Both aims would entail greater use of labour in UK agriculture, it notes. But working conditions in the sector are increasingly insecure, it adds, citing figures that show the proportion of casual and seasonal labour increased from five per cent in 1980 to 14 per cent in 2014.
Higher employment would also be a potential consequence of lower-input farming, it adds. "Reducing the impacts of fossil fuel-intensive fertilisers and polluting pesticides, as well as the biodiversity impacts of monoculture production, will require new production techniques that make use of ecological knowledge. Production methods that avoid artificial chemicals (such as organic agriculture) are more labour intensive. These workers may also have higher levels of well-being."
This conclusion was welcomed by the Soil Association. Policy director Peter Melchett said: "We strongly agree that the UK needs to make farming jobs more attractive to British workers. As the report says, to meet the demands of the future, agriculture will have to shift towards healthier diets and more environmentally sensitive production methods, which will in turn require an increase in labour input. Organic farming can play an important role in increasing better-quality food and farming jobs in the countryside."
Agri-tech - Digitisation is coming sooner than you may be thinking
Digitising Agriculture, a report by London-based PA Consulting, is based on a survey of 30 senior executives from the agri-tech sector. It predicts that the global digital agriculture market will triple in size in just six years from the current $5bn to $15bn by 2021, with Europe second in growth potential to North America.
The trend is expected to "create 10 per cent more value, from time savings and increased output, compared to traditional agriculture", it says, with cost savings and greater environmental protection also cited as benefits. Improved data connectivity, analysis and communication emerged as key drivers. "Even machines and equipment organisations see these elements as more important than farming hardware," the report adds.