by Marion Nestle
Aug 20 2012

Does the future hold jobs in the food industry?

Right now, the food industry employs roughly 12% of the U.S. work force.  This includes jobs in agriculture, food and beverage product manufacture, and food and beverage service.  Many of these jobs, of course, are minimum wage.

But reading Sunday’s New York Times makes me wonder how many of these and better jobs will be replaced by robots, and much sooner than I had imagined.

The falling costs and growing sophistication of robots have touched off a renewed debate among economists and technologists over how quickly jobs will be lost…the advent of low-cost automation foretells changes on the scale of the revolution in agricultural technology over the last century, when farming employment in the United States fell from 40 percent of the work force to about 2 percent today.

…And at Earthbound Farms in California, four newly installed robot arms with customized suction cups swiftly place clamshell containers of organic lettuce into shipping boxes. The robots move far faster than the people they replaced. Each robot replaces two to five workers at Earthbound, according to John Dulchinos, an engineer who is the chief executive at Adept Technology, a robot maker based in Pleasanton, Calif., that developed Earthbound’s system.

From the standpoint of industry, once the price of robots drops sufficiently their advantages far outweigh their stupidity.

Robots don’t call in sick, get pregnant, get into fights, have affairs with fellow workers, ask for raises, or threaten to go on strike.

What will it be like to live in a society in which vast segments of food production and service are replaced by robots?

Back to the farm, anyone?

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  • Cathy Richards

    I don’t know that we can judge the food industry for doing what we ourselves do at home – use machines to make our lives easier. Dishwashers. Underground sprinklers. Washing machines. Yes, there are things about all of these, and EarthBound’s robots, that aren’t great. But it’s only something that Nestle and Christie and other major producers have been doing for eons. Mechanizing their production.

    The causes of joblessness are multiple. Our solutions will need to be more creative than just blaming mechanization.

    Not to mention that joblessness will be the least of our problems if Big Food and Monsanto continue to perpetuate the myth of cheap food at the expense of the environment and global warming…

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  • FarmerJane

    I’d like to get one of those European-style robots that milk the cows. We are starting to see them here in the Northeast now. With a price tag of $100,000 plus for a robot that can milk 60 cows, I’ll have to wait a while with the price that I get paid for milk from my farm.
    Some of the workers who work on the massive multi-thousand cow farms tell me they already feel like robots since their work functions are now so specialized. Example: the milkers-people whose only function is to milk cows; the calf feeders, the barn cleaners, etc. These jobs are mostly filled by immigrant workers, and the big farms call for more immigrants. Owners of some of these farms will privately admit the model is not sustainable if immigrant workers were suddenly unavailable. But, I guess that’s efficiency for you! And, the biggest farms are paid far more for the milk than small farms because of their “volume premiums”…so I guess double efficiency!

  • More mechanization seems to me to have little down side compared to the up side.

    Now as an avid gardener I think that better plant breeds, newer better cheaper machines could bring back home production to higher levels.

  • Maureen

    And robots don’t harbor and spread food borne illnesses as humans do.

  • Cathy Richards

    @Maureen – Machines are notorious for hiding pockets of nasties. Some of those corners and wonky bits are very hard to clean.

  • Herbert J Gans

    If enough workers are fired and replaced by robots, the robots will themselves be fired eventually, since jobless humans will lack money to buy the products made or packed by the robots.

  • Jim Matorin

    Automation in the food industry is inevitable. However, candidly I am getting tired of the limited thinking our leaders exhibit when it comes to job creation. Let’s start with Data Mining. Think about how many analytical jobs will be created in the food business by CPG companies, restaurants, B2B manufacturers that supply restaurants, brokers, distributors, potentially insurance companies monitoring healthy eating, etc. (yes computers cranks the numbers, but humans will have to interpret the data and act on it). What about a greener food industry? We will need trained specialists, not robots to assist in making food a greener industry from farm to table. We need to start thinking more positively and innovate for the future.

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