It seems like everyone’s talking about how the robots are coming to take our jobs. First it was manufacturing, now it’s retail, and if I worked in transportation then I probably wouldn’t feel too good about self-driving vehicles. At the same time, I can think of at least one sector that could in principle benefit from employing more people, and that is sustainable agriculture. It’s not easy to define sustainable agriculture, but one broad theme emphasizes biological processes rather than chemical inputs: integrating crops and livestock, having a diverse range of species on the farm, and monitoring pest populations rather than using pesticides on a pre-set schedule. This kind of farm can be more difficult to mechanize – maybe one day someone will invent a beetle-scouting drone, but we’re not there yet. In the meantime, can we solve some of the environmental problems of industrial agriculture while providing skilled, interesting, meaningful work on the farm?
It won’t be easy. The economic forces in agriculture run completely counter to bringing more labor into farming. Historically, this has been a good thing. New technologies and resources allow farms to produce more food per worker, and lower the cost of food. Workers can spend less on food, leaving more income available to buy other goods and services. Jobs are created in producing those goods and services, in a virtuous spiral that improves standards of living for everyone. We can produce more food per worker by giving each employee better tools and skills, or we can do it by replacing them with machines and chemicals. Humans are expensive compared to equipment and synthetic inputs, so the number of people employed in US agriculture has declined dramatically in the last century or so.
Perhaps we’ve reached the point where, as a society, we would benefit more from employing people in growing food than from producing more stuff. It’s not easy to see, though, how this trend could be reversed in the current economic paradigm. Farmers have a strong incentive to overproduce. If prices are high, you want to take advantage of them by producing more. This drives prices down. If prices are low, what is there to do but produce more, to make a living off the slight profit margin that exists? But then prices drop further. So you need to cut costs, invest in technology that increases your yields still further, and if you employ humans at all, maybe they will be undocumented migrants working in miserable conditions for minimal wages. This suits us as consumers; after all, if farm costs rise then food prices will rise, and who wants that?
Ecological economics is grappling with this kind of problem, although not specifically in agriculture. Given the illogicality of infinite economic growth on a finite planet, there’s a lot of work underway to understand how a low-, zero-, or negative-growth economy could function. As we invent new technologies that put people out of a job, we can only avoid unemployment and unrest if the economy grows enough that new jobs are constantly being created. In a post-growth economy, the alternatives include reducing everyone’s working hours and focusing on sectors with low labor productivity. That is, those, like sustainable agriculture or the caring professions, that employ a lot of people in jobs that are not easily automated.
The path to such an economy is not yet clear, given the constant pressure to produce. It probably involves taxing inputs and pollution instead of incomes (to encourage efficient use of resources over cutting jobs), favouring co-ops (which can have motives other than maximizing profits), and measuring welfare and progress more broadly than just by GDP growth. It’s really interesting to think about the feedback loops and counterintuitive effects that may come about in such an economy. If we reduced working hours, would we effectively increase employment to the point where wages began to rise and the drive to replace human labor took hold again? What could we do about that?
I can see a kinder and more intelligent future, but I’m not always optimistic that we can get there. What we can do is start joining the dots of the economy and sketching out our map. Then we’ll know which roads to take when opportunities arise – and maybe some of those roads will lead back down to the farm.
Until 2016, Rachel Mason was a professional astronomer working at a large international observatory. However, she was becoming increasingly preoccupied with the question of how we can have good food, happy people and animals, and functioning ecosystems, all at the same time. Having decided to make a radical career change, Rachel is now exploring food and agriculture through an MS in the Plant and Soil Science department at UVM.