Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
Despite the globalisation of goods and services, homegrown produce remains a vital component of the United Kingdom’s economy. The agricultural industry is worth over £120 billion, and it is dependent on European labour, due to the majority of current employees being a citizen of another European Union country. Factors such as migrant workers having a better work ethic or being prepared to work longer hours, in comparison with non-migrant workers, are often cited as key reasons for this. While the industry has enjoyed an abundance of European workers in recent years, this profusion is now evaporating. Brexit and COVID-19 are the sources of this evaporation. Automation is the next necessary step.
With the UK leaving the EU, we can expect a massive impact on the agriculture industry. Leaving this institution will detriment the employment of labour in this industry. Under the new immigration scheme, only 10,000 workers would qualify for seasonal work in the agricultural sector. Workers will have to obtain an annual worker visa which only lasts for a few months. On top of that, many agriculture workers do not fit into the new scheme, as it favours high skilled workers over low skilled ones. The Nation Farming Union are not pleased by these proposals. They believe 70,000 workers are needed per year to address agricultural needs. Minette Batters, the president of NFU, says that the UK has already seen an 11% shortage in terms of the number of workers in the horticultural sector. Because of this shortage, produce has gone to waste.
COVID-19 has made the labour crisis in this industry even worse. Despite the fact that charter flights are still occurring, Europe is at a standstill. As a result, the industry has urged people in this country to help out. Campaigns such as “feed the nation” have sought to recruit new workers, and recruitment agencies have seen surges in interest for agriculture jobs. Concordia, a labour agency charity, has seen 36,000 people inquiring about these vacancies. But even with this spike in interest, it is still not enough to support this industry, meaning the labour crisis in this sector will persist and intensify.
As the country continues to deal with Brexit and COVID-19, the agriculture industry cannot maintain its high economic output. The UK will continue to be unable to meet the labour demands of the agriculture industry, but the mechanisation of this industry is the most viable solution. The £90 million technological investment for the agricultural sector, that was announced in 2018, is a good start. This investment has brought robotics, artificial intelligence, and various other technologies that can now be used to increase productivity in this sector.
Instead of trying to persuade the government to allow more workers into the country, we should be continuing to invest in automating agriculture. With the assistance of new technology, produce will no longer go rotten, and the sector will meet the demands of the country more efficiently. Some vineyards have already seen the benefits of mechanisation when they were experiencing labour shortages. Technologies are consistently outperforming humans, such as the Pellenc TRP Precision Pruner that reduced the time it takes to prune vines from 30-35 hours per acre to 5-7 hours per acre.
Hands-Free Hectare, a UK based company, want to make their fields completely automated via autonomous vehicles and drones. There are growing trends towards automation, and it is a matter of when and how will this occur. The ongoing events that have been mentioned illustrate why we need this conversation about agriculture. The mechanisation of agriculture is not a sci-fi fantasy; it is now a sci-fi-reality.