February 2017

Automation is taking away U.S. manufacturing jobs much faster than NAFTA or low-wage competitors in countries like Mexico or China.

That’s a fact, but one that gets lost in all the rhetoric around immigration and trade agreements.

And now in the last few months there’s increasing evidence that automation is also rushing to fill a labor vacuum in the agricultural industry. There’s a heated debate over undocumented workers coming into the U.S. to take farm jobs, but this could soon be a moot point.

The cheap foreign labor U.S. farmers have come to rely on for harvesting their crops may no longer be needed as machinery and sophisticated robots move into fields and orchards. A crackdown on immigration may not have the devastating effect on U.S. agriculture that growers feared, and domestic produce prices seem likely to rise if NAFTA is reworked or scrapped.

The result would be higher profits for farmers while middle class consumers face higher prices at the supermarket and see no real increase in employment opportunities.

Technology is advancing so quickly that the “America first” strategy that attracted so much support during last year’s election is already starting to look quaint.

strawberriesIn Florida, a winter fruit and vegetable center, a Tampa company called Harvest CROO Robotics was awarded a patent last summer on a strawberry picker that can harvest 25 acres of strawberries in three days.

Bloomberg reported last month: “Robotic devices like lettuce thinners and grape-leaf pullers have replaced so many human hands on U.S. farms in recent years that many jobs now held by illegal workers may not exist by the time Donald Trump builds his promised wall.”

A Michigan apple grower bought a $138,000 machine that can pick three times as many apples as workers using ladders and buckets. The machines never have to take a break, don’t need visas to get into the U.S., and don’t have to worry about immigration raids.

A California vineyard owner cut his need for grape pickers by 95 percent by purchasing an automated harvester.

Dairy farmers are using robots that milk, feed and clean cows.

Bloomberg says that out of a U.S. agricultural workforce of 2.6 million in 2016, up to 1 million were undocumented foreign workers. But that percentage is falling fast, since fewer foreign workers are coming into the country and those who do enter are looking for non-agricultural jobs.

Economists believe a lack of farm workers could mean higher prices at the supermarket. But if NAFTA is scrapped or renegotiated, the door could be open to higher produce prices anyway, even if automation plays a bigger role, because of less international competition.

So what’s in it for consumers if there’s no expansion of domestic job opportunities and supermarket prices are actually higher?

Tax the robots, says Microsoft founder Bill Gates. You could use the revenue to fund services for the elderly and for working with kids in schools, he said in an interview with Quartz, a publication founded by former Wall Street Journal reporter Kevin Delaney. It would also generate funding for worker retraining and may even have the effect of slowing down automation.

“Right now, the human worker who does, say, $50,000 worth of work in a factory, that income is taxed and you get income tax, social security tax, all those things,” Gates said. “If a robot comes in to do the same thing, you’d think that we’d tax the robot at a similar level.”

And here’s one thing guaranteed: You won’t hear any complaints from the robots.

Image credit: Fresh-picked strawberries via Wikimedia Commons.

Here’s yet another example of the law of unintended consequences — one that could have a harmful impact on the already-struggling U.S. health care system.

About 260 foreign medical students could lose their medical residency assignments as a result of the Trump Administration’s order banning travel to the U.S. from seven countries.

The Association of American Medical Colleges says the order could have a far-reaching effect on medical research and may also ultimately cause problems for patients in the U.S.

The organization released a statement saying that it’s “deeply concerned” about the order, which has been challenged in the U.S. courts and has been suspended — for now.

“International graduates play an important role in U.S. health care, representing roughly 25 percent of the workforce,” the statement said. “Current immigration pathways —including student, exchange-visitor, and employment visas — provide a balanced solution that improves health care access across the country ….”
Atul Grover, executive vice president at the AAMC, told Kaiser Health News: “These are doctors. They could be exceptional practitioners and I don’t know if you want to stop them from coming here and serving their patients.”

The countries are Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

One medical student from Sudan described the turn of events as “very devastating. Because you are born in an unfortunate situation, you have to pay the price for that.”

In addition to the 260 applicants for a residency slot — the positions were set to be announced March 17 — others who are already involved in a residency program fear that they won’t be able to complete it.

About a quarter of doctors in the U.S. are foreign-born, according to KHN. AAMC projects that there will be a shortage of 94,700 physicians in the U.S. by 2025.



CRACKING THE CANCER CODE: Certain kinds of hard-shelled nuts can help fight cancer, new research shows.

Macadamia nuts, hazelnuts, walnuts, almonds and pistachios help initiate “programmed cell death” in cancer cells, researchers found, although it’s unclear whether their anti-cancer power is reduced by roasting.

That will require further study, they said.

The studies were conducted by Friedrich Schiller University Jena in Germany.

Image: pistachios could help in the fight against colon cancer and other types of the disease. (Credit: Wikimedia commons)