Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Agricultural farms sans labor?-Too futuristic to think of now!

No wonder a country like the UK is thinking in terms of higher degree of mechanization and automation in their agricultural farms because of acute scarcity of labor and high cost involved in accessing them. Most farm workers are migrants as UK's indigenous population cannot do all the chores required to keep the nation going. Mechanized contraptions are already available for individual operations like tilling, sowing, planting, weeding, fertilizing, harvesting, threshing etc but here also lot of skilled workers are needed to operate these machines. Recent musings by one of the government policy makers in that country regarding application of IT enabled solutions to further cut down on the number of workers deployed in the farms reflect the frustration faced in the country to raise food production to feed the population without depending heavily on imports. Here is a take on this new strategies UK is thinking about as a future option.

"Farms have changed "dramatically" from the stereotype of the Wurzels and will soon have driverless tractors, the Environment Secretary has said. Liz Truss said that modern agriculture means "jobs done by hand are now done by machine", reducing the need for migrant labour. She said that while the number of jobs on farms will continue to decline, there will be greater demand for coders and IT experts. She said that the perception that farming and the food industry is about the Wurzels, the folk band, and "hairnets and wellies" is outdated. She said: "There's a big agricultural engineer in my constituency called Herbert's that produces potato pickers. Those are jobs that were done by hand and are now done by machine. I think we are seeing that taking place. "I think the number of people working on farms has declined for years, but that doesn't mean there won't be more jobs available in food overall. "If you think about the whole food chain, whether it's Sainsbury's hiring coders or whatever, it's a different profile of jobs. Farming itself is something where we are going to end up with driverless tractors very soon, I'd imagine. Most of the farm equipment you now need to be able to programme."

Farming is no more a low technology affair in advanced countries like Europe, the US, Canada, Australia etc where the population is either diminishing or hardly growing to any meaningful extent while immigrant population is increasing very significantly. There is another issue that is worrying developed countries to no end. This concerns the ever increasing incidences of food poisoning occurring in these countries in spite of the best technological inputs available to them! As most food borne diseases are caused by human intervention it makes sense to reduce contact between man and the food handled to the absolute minimum as far as possible. If food processing factories can work with a small force of workers due to very high degree of automation achieved, there is no reason why farms also cannot manage with the same type of IT enabled technologies. With organic foods registering phenomenal growth across the world, higher safety requirements for these foods can be achieved more easily if human contact is restricted to the unavoidable minimum. For a country like India such changes may be just be a pipe dream because if human beings are replaced by machine, where else will the farm labor go for gainful employment? A right blend of policies can however benefit the country involving selective deployment of technologies and machines farsighted vision to expand and diversify employment opportunities for displaced farm labor as it is reported to be happening in China.


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