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Part 1 of 2
How robots will feed the world
From environmental to economic, produce and floral growers continue to navigate a wave of challenges. One in particular — the shortage of labor — has emerged as the most concerning issue facing the industry today. To effectively tackle the crisis, small and large farms alike have begun to reshape their operations through automation and robotics in hopes of boosting productivity and maximizing resources. But how does such cutting-edge technology fit into the agriculture world? And what does it mean for the future of labor?
Lacquey, a Dutch company specializing in robotic food handling technology, collaborated with FTNON, an equipment manufacturer, to develop a robotic hand with a specialized gripper. The gripper mimics the human grasp to pick up cabbage and lettuce heads and orient them so that they fit into a machine that removes the core.
Technology solves pain points
“You have to view technology as a potential solution for pain points in the industry,” Dr. Bob Whitaker, Chief Science and Technology Officer at Produce Marketing Association, said. “Agriculture has always been dependent on a ready supply of manual labor. In today’s climate, we have a shrinking labor pool. People don’t want these jobs.”
The agricultural tech revolution began with automation. Robotics as we know it today wouldn't even exist if it wasn't for automation's transformation of data into actionable tasks. But automation has always been limited when it comes creating knowledge from data, reacting to changes in the environment, and multi-tasking. That's when the robots began to take over. Robots have the ability to learn from their mistakes and follow complex instructions, making them an invaluable asset to growers looking to fill holes in their labor force.
Number of farm workers declines rapidly
And that hole is growing. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average number of farm workers has declined steadily over the last century from roughly 3.4 million to just over 1 million. Between 2002 and 2014, the number of full-time equivalent field and crop workers decreased by more than 20 percent, resulting in a loss of $3.1 billion in farm revenue each year. The reason for this decline ranges from reduced immigration to declining birth rates to an unwillingness to perform agricultural work to an aging farm population.
As a result, the use of high-tech solutions at farms across the U.S. has begun to surge. According to Robotics.org and IDTechEx, robots and drones now represent a $3 billion market in agriculture, and that number is expected to climb to $6 billion by 2022. Some estimates are even higher. Wintergreen researchers project agricultural robots will be a $16.3 billion industry by 2020 — a rate of growth 20 times its 2013 size.
Taylor Farms has collaborated with Soft Robotics on the development of a robotic arm with “grippers” that can handle fresh fruits or vegetables with dexterity.
Food production required to double by 2045
While implementing automation and robotics can be a drastic shift for some growers, this innovation is both beneficial and necessary as the world population continues to expand. The United Nations expects the global count to reach 8.5 billion by 2030, and 9.7 billion by 2050. Those numbers require a doubling of our food production by 2045. Automation and robotics present the most likely method of meeting that demand, but growers will still need that personal touch in order for it to all come together.
“We’re moving toward a more skilled, expert workforce,” Whitaker said. “If this is really going to become an integrated system, it’s going to take people who are comfortable with engineering, data analysis, product development, and agriculture. It’s going to take high-end specialties to make this all work.”
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Publication date: 8/8/2017
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