The growing need for agricultural automation
13 October 2017
Since the UK voted for Brexit, the number of EU workers coming to the UK has dropped; not only do many feel less welcome, the lower value of Sterling means it is no longer as financially rewarding to work in the UK was it once was. And, in case you missed it last month, a leaked Home Office document left no doubts that post-Brexit the government intends to drive down even more the number of low-skilled EU migrants in the UK.
While many will welcome this – indeed, British jobs for British people was a strong rationale in voting for Brexit amongst many – it does pose a problem for those industries that rely on low cost EU labour. This can, for example, be seen in across agriculture, particularly in soft fruits where it is estimated that 9 out of 10 seasonal pickers and packers come from the EU, primarily Poland, Bulgaria and Romania. According to a report commissioned by the British Summer Fruits trade body, if UK-based producers are forced to move their operations to countries within the EU to ensure access to labour, it is estimated the price of strawberries will rise from around £2 per 400g punnet to £2.75 – a jump of 37%. Replacing homegrown raspberries with imported fruit would see the price of a 200g punnet jump 50% from £2 to £3. Not great news for the British consumer.
However, there is an upside to all this. Earlier this year, a report by the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee predicted that controlled EU immigration after Brexit will likely see UK firms seek to replace cheap labour with increased investment in automation and technology. And anecdotally this can be seen happening already. At the recent PPMA (Processing and Packaging Machinery Association) Show, many exhibitors identified the Brexit vote and consequent drop in the number of EU workers as a catalyst for investment in automation.
Thankfully there are innovative companies out there offering automated solutions to fill the gap. According to Brillopak director David Jahn: “Improving packing productivity and economic output per hour will be central to boosting efficiency and offsetting fresh produce price rises. With packhouses grappling with this imminent EU labour crisis, combined with rising minimum wages, many Brillopak customers are seriously exploring automated case loading systems.”
Of course, increasing automation to replace low-skilled EU workers isn’t going to help low-skilled British workers enter the labour market. However, I can’t help thinking that this was never really going to happen anyway. You only have to look at projects like the Hand Free Hectare, run by Harper Adams University and Precision Decisions, which successfully planted, tended and harvested a crop with only autonomous vehicles and drones to realise that automation, rather than workforce, will increasingly be the key to agricultural achievement in the years to come.