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May 13, 2015 | 09:16 GMT

7 mins read

U.S.: How Future Farmers Will Use Technology to Improve Agriculture

Japan's Utsunomiya University displays a strawberry-harvesting robot at the annual International Robot Exhibition in Tokyo in 2013. Robotics will become more important in the U.S. agricultural sector as labor costs rise and technological advancements become more affordable.
(YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • Automation and the use of robotics will slowly become more pervasive throughout the U.S. agricultural sector as newer technologies become more economically viable over the next decade.
  • Rising labor costs, scarcity of resources and accelerating global demand will all contribute to increased automation, which will boost efficiency and productivity.
  • Because of small profit margins, advancements in the automation technologies and robotics used in agriculture will rely on developments in other sectors that have more money to invest in research and development.
  • While U.S. immigration policies will remain a contentious issue, it is Mexican immigration policies and economic development that will really reduce the labor pool and push the sector toward more automation.

Large expanses of fertile land and navigable rivers make up the core of the United States, anchoring the global power. The agricultural industry based in this heartland will continue consolidating and becoming more automated. Robotics, smart technology and drones are among the technologies that will be increasingly incorporated into the industry as agricultural producers cope with increased global demand, declining resources and rising labor costs. Driverless tractors, drones that monitor soil quality, automated irrigation and even robotic bees to pollinate crops are all tools that farmers will have at their disposal as they seek to profit in a future of higher demand and fewer resources.

Necessity and Invention in Agriculture

From the use of irrigation in antiquity to the invention of the cotton gin and mechanical reaper in the mid-19th century, farmers have a long history of harnessing and benefiting from technology. The Green Revolution introduced new technologies, including higher yielding varietal crops, to the developing world, and now genetically engineered plants that are herbicide tolerant make up the majority of U.S. soybean crops. Average yields — the amount of a crop produced per unit area planted — around the globe skyrocketed in the second half of the 20th century, increasing by roughly 2 percent per year, in no small part because of a combination of technological contributions.

The world's population is expected to exceed 9 billion by 2050. In order to meet this growing demand, yields must increase by as much as 25 percent during the next 35 years. This improvement must occur at a time when access to limited resources, such as land and water, is decreasing. In order to remedy the discrepancy, the agricultural industry will once again adapt through the use of new technologies. The incorporation of robotics and other automated technology will be vital to improving yields and to maintaining profit margins in the coming years and decades.

The agricultural industry will once again adapt through the use of new technologies. The incorporation of robotics and other automated technology will be vital to improving yields and to maintaining profit margins.

The use of automation or robotics is not a new concept for farmers or ranchers. Dairy farmers, especially in the United States, have been incorporating robotic milking machines to improve output since the 1990s, and the use of such machines is expected to spread. Machinery on many large farms in the Central United States is outfitted with numerous computers; seed planting is often automated, and harvesting can be guided by GPS. However, technology will only be incorporated when it makes economic sense, meaning that labor availability and costs will be as important to adaptation as the development of technology.

Immigration and Labor Costs

It is no secret that many of the workers employed as manual field labor are undocumented or unauthorized. The 2016 U.S. national elections could change the direction of immigration reform and thus the potential availability and cost of immigrant labor. The direction and method of such a change is impossible to predict, but ultimately Mexico's growing economy and its efforts to mitigate emigration from Central America will be the key factors limiting the availability of low-cost labor in the United States.

The overall population of undocumented migrants in the United States has remained stable in recent years, hovering at just over 11 million. But there has been a drop in the total number of undocumented immigrants apprehended each year since the number peaked at the turn of the century. Another shift occurred in 2014, when more migrants from Central America were apprehended than from Mexico. The decline in emigration from Mexico is part of a long-term trend; as Mexico's per capita income rises, the percentage of agricultural workers in Mexico declines, much like the shift that occurred previously in the United States. As the labor pool declines further, farming operations in both Mexico and the United States will have to compete for labor from poorer Central American countries. Moreover, Mexico has had some recent success managing undocumented migration from Central America, further limiting the labor available. These factors have combined to contribute to increased wages for farm workers in the United States.

The agricultural industry in the United States is looking for ways to decrease labor costs. Because of slim profit margins, the sector cannot afford to shoulder the whole burden of developing new robotics technologies to replace workers.

Labor costs make up 17 percent of total production costs but can reach as high as 50 percent for specific labor-intensive crops such as fruits and vegetables. Like in other developed nations, the percentage of farmworkers in the total U.S. work force decreased throughout the 20th century, as per capita income increased. It was only the influx of cheap labor from Mexico that allowed the United States to avoid a labor crisis in the agricultural sector in the middle of the 20th century. However, labor costs have consistently increased since the 1990s, rising 1 percent between October 2013 and October 2014.

With labor costs likely to remain high, the agricultural industry in the United States is looking for ways to decrease the costs. Because of slim profit margins, the agricultural sector cannot afford to shoulder the whole burden of developing new robotics technologies to replace workers. However, research in the robotics sector is supported by other industries looking to offset demographic pressures and to lower manufacturing costs. The agricultural sector in the United States (and in other developed nations) will be able to exploit modified technologies to remain competitive and to meet growing demand in the coming years and decades.

New Technological Tools

Big data and smart technologies will play an increasingly important role in improving agricultural production in the United States over the course of the next 10 years. Drones, a technology developed by and for other sectors and usually associated with military operations, will dramatically improve the way the agricultural sector collects and uses information. Sensors continuously measuring anything from soil moisture or nitrogen content to the biometrics of livestock will allow farmers to more efficiently utilize limited resources such as water and fertilizer. Adaptation of this type of technology will be simpler and quicker than of fully robotic harvesting or of completely driverless tractors. It is the next step in an existing trend of data-driven agriculture. The necessary drones are already relatively inexpensive, and estimated cost to the farmer could be as low as $1,000 per drone. Although it depends on the specific technology and on Federal Aviation Administration regulations, many sensors could become economically viable and be used more widely within five years.

Drones will help increase the precision of farming, thereby increasing yields and decreasing input costs, but they do not fully address one of the major input costs of farming: manual labor. Farmers will incorporate robotic harvesting technologies — robots that pick strawberries, robotic bees to pollinate crops or tractors that drive themselves both day and night — only when doing so makes economic sense. We expect labor costs to continue to rise, and improvements in robotics will eventually bring the costs of using such technology down. Farmers will have to wait for other industries to develop some of the more advanced technologies first, but, just as it has in previous decades, the U.S. agricultural industry will remain competitive and will supply the global market by incorporating new technologies.

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