27 May 2020

The Robot Workers Picking for Britain

Agritech

Jenna Keighley

If you’d looked at my kitchen table a month ago, you’d probably have been horrified at the mess; row upon row of seed trays sitting inside sweaty-looking, clear sandwich bags or covered by an upturned Tupperware that I’d co-opted to be my makeshift propagators; one or two brave but solitary seedlings doing their best to poke through and survive my frankly-pathetic attempts at flexing my green thumbs… Every year I do this because home-grown fruit and veg just tastes better and I can usually manage not to kill a tomato plant or two… This year my delusions of horticultural grandeur have expanded to include my own blueberries, raspberries and strawberries, partly because, well… why not? Partly because this year, COVID-19 took one look at the British soft fruit industry, which was already on its knees due to massive, ongoing annual labour shortages and decided to stab it in the back, then twist the knife by preventing any seasonal migrants from reaching the UK.

Earlier last month (2 April), British farmers urged residents to “Pick for Britain”, a national campaign reminiscent of the Women’s Land Army of the second World War that’s looking to mobilise up to 90,000 people needed to help harvest Britain’s fruit and veg crops or risk leaving food “rotting in the fields” at a time where food security and uncertainty is reaching new levels of urgency. However, while the coronavirus pandemic has certainly brought things to a head, allowing politicians and pundits to dress up a 1940s model in 2020 fashion and praise our modern-day “blitz spirit” of staying at home, the National Farmer’s Union (NFU) has been calling for “urgent action” by the UK government to address the declining seasonal labour force for a number of years now. Even at its 2017 AGM, Minette Batters, now the President of the NFU said, “We knew five years ago that we would be facing a shortfall, but then we had Brexit and that massively exacerbates everything.”

A month on from the launch of the Pick for Britain campaign, the work continues to try to attract more people, with Prince Charles lending his support and urging people to make a “vital contribution to the national effort”. Call me cynical but it doesn’t look like we’re going to get anywhere near the levels of engagement needed by farmers in this window…

We are facing a seemingly perfect storm: 

  • The number of seasonal migrants from Eastern European countries was already in decline as their domestic economies strengthened, making it less necessary for workers to seek better opportunities abroad.
  • Brexit provided an international platform to a vocal anti-migrant rhetoric, making many migrants from all walks of life and many countries feel unwelcome and in some cases, unsafe.
  • A global pandemic prevented seasonal migrants from travelling to the UK due to country-wide lockdowns. 

Even if you ignore the acute pain of the third element, the first two are long-term, chronic issues which could cripple our domestic food production. According to Nick Marston, Chairman of British Summer Fruits “In recent years as much as 98 per cent of seasonal workers have come from eastern European countries, like Bulgaria and Romania,” meaning we have very little resource on which to rely now and in the future.

Can technology make a difference?

Scientists, researchers and technology entrepreneurs are already working hard to develop ways to address a global trend that sees the seasonal labour force both shrinking in size and rising in cost. Soft fruit like berries are among the hardest crops for a robot to harvest; they either risk damaging the plant itself or bruising the fruit, making it impossible to sell. 

Belgian robotics company, Octinion, hasn’t been put off by the scale of the task however, and launched the world’s first strawberry picking robot named Rubion at Berlin’s Fruit Logistica in February 2019. Rubion can detect which berries are ripe, pick them without damaging the fruit and then place them in the punnet. The company followed up on Rubion’s launch by announcing a research collaboration with Meteor Systems to develop the future of strawberry cultivation, incorporating advanced grow systems with complete automation.

In the UK, Plymouth University spinout, Fieldwork Robotics, completed initial field testing of its raspberry-picking robot in May 2019 at a West Sussex farm owned by Fieldwork’s industry partner, Hall Hunter Partnership, which supplies Marks & Spencer, Tesco and Waitrose. Although the data from these trials is still being used to refine the robot’s performance prior to wider commercialisation, it’s expected that the final model will be available towards the end of 2020. 

Once deployed commercially, such robotics workers will be able to pick fruit faster for longer, and without a break in the cooler night-time temperatures that help preserve the shelf-life of delicate berries. In recent years, the main challenge appears to have centred on matching the human picker’s gentle handling of the fruit and their ability to evaluate each item for ripeness and quality. With advancements in computer vision and artificial intelligence, robots can now analyse far more variables in that equation, making reliable selections and ensuring that the highest-quality, locally-produced fresh fruit is available to global consumers for years to come.

There’s no doubt that this year will be hard, with more national headlines highlighting the cruel irony of food poverty in the same country that sees producers tearing their hair out trying to find people to help them bring in the harvests whilst nutritious food rots in the fields and orchards.

People and politics are failing to address the seasonal labour shortage but perhaps we’re close to a time when it will no longer matter.