The robots have arrived in California’s fields. This summer, a self-driving tractor was spotted working rows of vines in Napa valley. Described as resembling a “souped-up golf cart”, the tractor runs on an electric battery and can be operated remotely with an app.
Farther south, strawberry harvesting robots have been picking fruit. Complete with wheels, clipper-tipped arms and a catchment tray, its maker claims the machine can pick almost as many berries as a human with 95% accuracy.
The global ag-tech revolution has accelerated in recent years as the climate crisis puts a strain on farmers and crops, and the pandemic continues to disrupt the workforce on which the industry depends. In California, where much of this technology is being developed and tested, that’s raised complex questions for the state’s farm workers.
Not all workers view automation as a bad thing, advocates say, because it has the potential to alleviate difficult aspects of the job. But they also fear the rush to automate is being done without their input, and in a way that privileges farm owners, tech developers and investors without considering the consequences for workers.
It’s a debate that comes as California farm workers are already fighting for more rights and protections. In August, the United Farm Workers, the largest farm workers’ union in the US, completed a 24-day, 335-mile march to the capital in Sacramento, demanding the governor, Gavin Newsom, sign a bill that would make it easier to unionize without fear and intimidation from employers. (Newsom, who owns a vineyard, has yet to sign the bill despite pwysau from the White House this week.)
“It’s the same issue with automation in any industry, is it going to replace jobs? And, if so, is it replacing jobs with higher paid wages?” said Maria Cadenas, the executive director of the nonprofit Santa Cruz Community Ventures, an organisation that provides financial support and programs to low-income families in the Monterey Bay area.
“We’re looking at systems that were not designed to have shared wealth distribution, we’re looking at systems that were designed to continue to extract and build wealth toward the owners.”
She cites the example of how mechanisation brought into tomato harvesting in the 1960s resulted in an estimated 32,000 farm workers losing their jobs and pushing hundreds of small farms out of business. Writing on the impact of automation of tomato processing in a Erthygl 1978 for the Nation, the farm labor leader Cesar Chavez highlighted the human cost of this “wonderful technology”.
“Research should benefit everyone, workers as well as growers,” he wrote.
Using crisis as a selling point
Silicon Valley sits alongside the vast Central Valley region known as America’s bread bowl, where an amcangyfrifir 25% of the country’s food is grown and harvested by tens of thousands of workers. In 2020, ag-tech startups in California received $5.6bn in venture capital funding, more than the next four states combined, composing 20% of the world’s total funding in the industry.
The Covid-19 pandemic has presented new opportunities for Silicon Valley to pitch its technology, says Emily Reisman, an assistant professor of environment and sustainability at the University of Buffalo. In papur 2021, Reisman examined how webinars and live presentations across 45 ag-tech events from March 2020 to September 2020 discussed the untapped potential.
“It would be a critical error to go into a pitch and not mention coronavirus or the global pandemic,” one ag-tech startup CEO told his peers in a webinar on startup funding during the pandemic. Another ag-tech founder echoed the sentiment, while executives also claimed fears of labour shortages are poised to accelerate automation.
Reisman argues that using crises as a selling point risks characterising automation as altruistic, and obscuring the impact on the farm workers who could be displaced.
“Many people who are existing farm workers aren’t necessarily resistant to automation, many of them are getting older, many of them see these tools as potentially relieving some of the physical burden of farm work,” said Reisman. “But, if we think of the pandemic as justifying them, there are some risks.”
Reisman said automation could also create immigration risks for farm workers, many of whom come from Latin America. Farm groups have been leading proponents for immigration reforms that support guest workers and undocumented immigrants, she explained, but that support could wane or disappear as automation decreases the industry’s dependency on foreign workers.
Reckoning with history
Some say that while automation is on the rise, it’s unlikely to make farm workers entirely redundant. There are some jobs that robots may simply not be able to do, argues Giev Kashkooli, the political and legislative director for the United Farm Workers of America, such as discerning which crops are ready to be picked off a plant that can be packed and sold aside from immature or rotten crops.
Armando Elenes, a farm worker organiser and secretary treasurer of the United Farm Workers, Dywedodd Civil Eats in 2020 that he was sceptical of that robots would replace farm workers, which he said had been touted for more than a decade. He said the union is more focused on protecting workers, their rights and expanding the union’s base.
Farm workers have historically been treated poorly by the agriculture industry and have had to organize and fight for any gains to their working conditions and wages. Ricardo Salvador, a senior scientist and director of the Food and Environment Program at Union of Concerned Scientists, argued this history needs to be addressed by those advocating for new technologies if they are going to live up to the promised benefits.
“Workers are [the ones] contributing to the bottom line and making profit possible for farmers, ranchers and industry,” said Salvador, and suggests this knowledge should be harnessed by technology companies looking to innovate.
“Working together with farm laborers, who are the people that are most familiar with the way that the operations work, and enlisting them as allies and co-beneficiaries of technological improvement,” he said, “could actually accelerate and maybe even improve its application.”