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.

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