If there was one moment that it became clear how important foreign labour has become for the agricultural sector, it was the past period. Weeding and harvesting work in arable farming and open field vegetable cultivation, and harvesting work in greenhouses in particular, suffered from travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 crisis. However, boning in slaughterhouses, especially the housing situation of migrant workers, also turned out to be a risk for the spread of the virus. Due to the crisis, further robotisation in agriculture has spontaneously become a theme.
Is this (finally) the moment when robots will take over the repetitive, heavy and yet boring work? Various experts from within and outside the sector think so and not just because of labor shortages. The (temporary) lack of, for example, ingredients from China for crop protection products is also a problem. And it turns out that working from home and digitization such as meeting via Skype, Teams or Zoom is not that bad. Farmers and consumers are rediscovering the convenience of short chains, often out of necessity, because regular sales are no longer available. But then you have to have labor to be able to harvest. And then there is the European Farm to Fork strategy that wants us to use 50% less chemical crop protection products by 2030 and that 25% of the agricultural area is organic (now that is 7.5% in the EU and 4.3% in The Netherlands).
Do we need robotic migrants – robots of foreign origin – to weed and harvest here, to do all those jobs and to become more “organic”? For now, yes. It is now mainly the French, Danes, Americans and Australians who already sell robots or deliver “as a service”. Fortunately, innovation does not stand still for us either! Wasn’t it the Greenbot robot tractor that shook the world five years ago? In the coming years, various Dutch startups will be knocking on the doors of arable farmers, bulb growers and market gardeners with their robot solutions for and by the Dutch agricultural sector. Hopefully, legislators and funders will cooperate!