How Robotics and Automation Will Affect Labor in the Food System

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In downtown San Francisco, office workers order and pick up quinoa bowls via an automated system without encountering a single employee. In Europe, a “platoon” of semi-autonomous delivery trucks crosses international borders for the first time.

From seed to table, a revolution in technology that prioritizes robotics and automation is on the cusp of transforming the work required to produce, transport, sell, and serve food.

What that shift will mean for the Americans who currently do that work, however, is not fully understood. Tech entrepreneurs talk about how robotics will solve labor shortages and make food system work safer and more efficient. Laborers fear robots will lead to the displacement of millions of workers who are not trained for a new, digital economy while lining the pockets of tech CEOs.

“I keep hearing this story of the robot apocalypse: ‘The robots are coming and they’re going to take everyone’s jobs.’ People are acting like this is going to happen, like it’s a given,” says Doug Bloch, the political director of Teamsters Joint Council 7, a union that represents more than 100,000 workers in California and Nevada. “The technology is a given, it’s coming. The outcomes attached to that technology are not a given at all, and we have a chance to shape them.”

A Futuristic Food System

In November, researchers at Harpers Adams University in the United Kingdom announced the completion of the Hands Free Hectare project, during which nearly five tons of spring barley was successfully planted, tended, and harvested by autonomous vehicles and drones.

“This project aimed to prove that there’s no technological reason why a field can’t be farmed without humans working the land directly now, and we’ve done that,” Martin Abell, a researcher for industry partner Precision Decisions, said in a press release.

The project was a demonstration of what will be possible at some point in the future, but mechanization is already changing agriculture in less comprehensive ways. In a recent report on investment in agrifood tech—a segment of startups and venture capitalists aiming to improve or disrupt the global food and agriculture industry—AgFunder found that there was actually a 13-percent decrease in funding for farm robotics and mechanization since 2014.

Still, Louisa Burwood-Taylor, the company’s head of media and research, says John Deere’s recent acquisition of Blue River Technology points to the fact that interest in the space is strong and will continue to grow. The company makes a robotic technology for weed control that is meant to evaluate and spray weeds on its own.

Burwood-Taylor says these kinds of technologies have the potential to bring precision to farming via a marriage between data and robotics, telling a farmer exactly how much of an herbicide is needed, for example, or exactly when to water a crop.

“I think it’ll help farmers and farm workers do their jobs better and more precisely and in a more environmentally sustainable way,” she says. A handful of other companies are working on automated seeding, weeding, and harvesting technologies, while indoor agriculture using robots, like Iron Ox in San Francisco, is just getting off the ground.

In food processing, machines that are not nearly as advanced as those currently being developed have already changed various aspects of production. Bloch offered the example of canning, an industry that employed more than 100,000 Teamster Joint Council 7 workers in California in the 1970s and is now down to about 15,000. While there were other factors that contributed to the loss of jobs, “by far the largest reason was because of automation,” he says, “and by and large, we were unprepared for the onslaught.”

Trucking, though, seems to be the industry labor groups are most concerned about. The platoon model mentioned earlier, in which a driver in one truck is followed by a line of autonomous trucks controlled wirelessly, is already being implemented in the U.S. Peloton Technology is testing its system with a company that provides services to many of the largest trucking fleets in the country, and Uber teamed up with Anheuser-Busch InBev in Colorado last year to make the first commercial delivery—of 50,000 cans of Budweiser—in an autonomous truck. Tesla’s new electric semis are also equipped with a version of the technology that could be expanded. Bloch says he expects autonomous trucks to be used in platoons within the next five years. “That’s going to radically reshape the way long-haul trucking is happening,” he says.

Finally, robotics and automation companies with major venture capital investment are entering restaurants and retail. In grocery stores, self-checkout has already changed the labor landscape. Momentum Machines is making a robot that can grill and assemble a fast food burger, Chowbotics is making a salad-making robot vending machine, and Soma Bar has created a robot bartender. Many of the machines would replace kitchen laborers, while automated ordering systems like the one used by Eatsa, the automated quinoa bowl restaurant, negate the need for servers and cashiers. One analysis done by CBInsights found that within the next 5 to 10 years, 10 million jobs will be lost to automation, with cooks and servers taking the biggest hit at 4.3 million jobs lost.

Labor Pains

Vanishing jobs are the biggest point of contention in the discussions surrounding robotics and automation in the food system.

Prominent economists who study the effects of what they call the Second Machine Age on work and workers argue that in the past, economic abundance was paired with wage growth and more job prospects for workers. That coupling has changed, and while tech advances have helped the economy continue to grow, wages and jobs have stagnated. The new tech era will be one with decreased demand for low-skill workers and increased demand for high-skill workers. “Economists call it skill-biased technical change. By definition, it favors people with more education, training, or experience,” said Erik Brynjolfsson, faculty member at the MIT Sloan School of Management, in an interview with the Harvard Business Review.

At the same time, entrepreneurs like Iron Ox co-founder Brandon Alexander say that their systems are not replacing workers but rather helping to address a labor shortage. After talking to farmers before they launched, he says, “the biggest issue they had was labor scarcity. That was a big impetus behind us using robotics. We need to be producing more food, but less people want to be doing it.”

Labor groups dispute that point. First, says Food Chain Workers Alliance co-director Joann Lo, current immigration laws have created a labor shortage, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t human workers who want the farm jobs. “It’s a little bit of a limited worldview,” she says. “There are enough people in the world who would want to come here if there’s a path for them to stay here, if they’re treated fairly.”

And according to Bloch, companies in the food industry are complaining about a problem they created. Fighting for the deregulation of trucking decades ago, for example, led to an increase in companies that hired non-union workers, he says. “They can’t hire enough people to do the job. Well, that was once a middle class job. Now it’s a job being done by an independent contractor who has no benefits, no retirement, no health care. After they take out all of their expenses, they’re lucky if they’re making minimum wage,” he says. The New York Times recently reported on how a strong social safety net has allowed countries like Sweden to embrace automation without consequences for workers, but that kind of government support for laborers does not exist in the United States.

Which points to another concern: In addition to the elimination of jobs, some worry that many of the jobs that are created within a more automated economy won’t be jobs that are good for food workers.

Madeleine Clare Elish, a researcher at Data+Society who is starting a project to study how automation will affect agriculture workers, says she’s found in past research on other industries that while humans may not be eliminated from the picture, they’re often pushed out of the frame. “One of the findings in aviation and across the board is that…you automate one process, but to fully integrate the automation into a larger organizational process, it requires people to patch it over,” she explains. “And often that ‘edge work’ that is done outside of the automated system, that gets made invisible. When it’s made invisible, that work is undervalued.”

So, what’s next?

In addition to conducting research, Teamsters Joint Council 7 has already gotten involved in legislation, such as ensuring that in the Self-Drive Act, which will make it easier for companies to test autonomous vehicles, commercial vehicles that are 10,000 pounds or larger will still be required to have a driver.  Bloch says he’s also having lots of conversations with employers to find out how the jobs are changing and how the union can train its workers for the new landscape.

“There are going to be jobs…and we want to figure out what those new jobs are going to be and how displaced workers are going to get them,” he says, “and the government can help push those conversations.”

In early December, Food Chain Workers Alliance convened its members on a phone call to officially discuss the issue for the first time. Various groups brought up driverless vehicles affecting trucking jobs, automation pushing out workers in restaurants and grocery stores, and an increase in robotics used to both replace and control workers in greenhouse farms. Most groups expressed concern, but there were also discussions of potential benefits. A representative from the Farmworkers Assocation of Florida, for example, brought up the fact that a decade ago, sugar cane was almost entirely hand-harvested, and the process is now almost entirely mechanized. This change could be seen as a good thing, she said, since sugar cane is one of the most brutal crops to harvest. Food

“We’re not opposed to automation, of course. That’s part of how our society has progressed,” Lo says, “but it should be done in a way that’s safe for the workers and benefits everybody in the company, not just for profits at the top.” USA