Agriculture After the Pandemic

After suffering severe labor shortages because of this COVID-19 pandemic, it appears improbable that advanced-economy farmers will go back to business as usual. Rather, many will probably try to mitigate the dangers stemming from reliance on foreign seasonal employees by automating more of the operations.

PRETORIA — As the COVID-19 pandemic compels countries to close their borders, their agricultural businesses are facing major challenges. In countries that are not likely to deal with food insecurity — such as those in Europe and North America –, farms are facing severe labor shortages, due to new barriers. And the impact of the disturbance on the distribution of workers is very likely to spur permanent shifts within the industry after the pandemic finishes.

Between border closures and fears of illness and quarantine, those employees aren’t coming this year, and lots of Western European plants are put to rot in the fields. Americans don’t wish to work in the areas, so farmers rely largely on seasonal Mexican migrant workers. Participants at the H-2A visa program — covering people who were hired to fill agriculture jobs lasting less than 1 year — comprise 10 percent of all farmworkers in the US.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, that challenge was compounded. Add to this new health and safety burdens for companies, who have to uphold social-distancing protocols not just at work, but also in the home and transport they supply to H-2A employees, and agricultural growth is set to decrease significantly.

Following this experience, it appears unlikely that farmers will go back to business as usual. Rather, many will probably try to mitigate the dangers stemming from reliance on foreign seasonal employees by automating more of the operations.

To be sure, automation requires a considerable up-front investment, and some tasks (such as harvesting fruits and vegetables) are more challenging to automate than others. But technology such as drones, autonomous tractors, seeding robots, and robotic harvesters suggest a dramatic decrease in farmers’ reliance on migrant labor.

If big agricultural producers in advanced economies take these measures, their peers in developing nations may follow suit, even in areas without labor shortages. By way of instance, South Africa has a huge supply of unskilled, often unemployed workers well suited to farm work.

Before the COVID-19 crisis, South Africa’s 2012 National Development Plan (NDP) had set the goal of increasing employment in agriculture and agricultural processing by roughly a million by 2030, including through the promotion of labor-intensive subsectors and a rise in farmland.

Thus far, such efforts have contributed to the growth of plants such as citrus fruit, macadamia nuts, apples, table grapes, avocados, and soybeans. However, after the pandemic, technological diffusion is also likely to accelerate, not because of national market conditions, but due to the need to compete in global markets with advanced-country manufacturers.

In actuality, the NDP also intends to boost agricultural investment in irrigation, boost productivity, and expand export markets — all objectives that could enable, or demand, higher automation.

The same holds for the rise in agricultural land. The states of KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape, and Limpopo jointly have 1.6-1.8 million hectares of underused arable land, based on some 2015 research by McKinsey Global Institute. Automation can be built into the process of creating this property for agriculture.

More broadly, during the post-COVID-19 recovery period, policymakers and businesses in most countries with large scale agriculture will need to pay close attention to trends in automation.