The use of robotics in agriculture offers no quick fix, despite recent suggestions by Defra secretary George Eustice that the technology could be key to overcoming labour shortages in agriculture.
Addressing an NFU South-East seminar at the South of England Show, NFU vice-president David Exwood agreed that future technology, such as robotics, has a role to play in sustainable farming. But it cannot be relied upon in the short-term.
“Robotics is clearly coming,” he said. “You can already buy a robotic tractor in America and set it working in your field.
“But politicians picking shiny examples and saying: ‘This is the future that will solve all problems’ is not helpful.”
Mr Exwood cited the example of a drone that is able to spot-spray pesticides.
“I have seen it there, working, but it is not licenced to operate in this country, as you can’t do aerial crop spraying here. It is unhelpful of George to signpost too much and not face the reality.”
The limitations of robotics were also emphasised by Richard Hopkins, managing director of horticulture company Fargro.
“I was on a strawberry farm last week which, next year, plans to have 50 robots picking strawberries,” he said. “These robots are now 97% accurate in identifying the right fruit on the right plant – but my God they’re slow.”
A best-case scenario suggested that, in five years’ time, robots might be able to take one-third of the crop on that farm.
“That’s great, but does that mean we need one-third fewer people? No, because only about one-third of the people on that farm are involved in harvesting.”
Mr Hopkins said he was “very disappointed” with an article penned by Mr Eustice suggesting robotics is the answer to ending the sector’s dependence on foreign labour.
David Christian Rose, professor of sustainable agriculture at Cranfield University, agreed that robotics was no quick fix.
“I am involved in a project called Robot Highways, demonstrating autonomous technology on a soft fruit farm in Kent,” he said. “But it won’t be ready this year, or next year, or for many years.”
Scaling up to commercial use is the biggest challenge.
“Take a fruit-picking robot, for example. What do you need to get it out onto a farm? You need the skills and knowledge of the grower, you might need to level roads, change the farm infrastructure, provide somewhere to house and charge the robot.
“You may also need changes in rural infrastructure, such as connectivity, to allow these things to work, and you may need changes in regulation to allow it to be used.
“Technology offers wonderful opportunities, but don’t get seduced by it because it does not solve short-term problems – for example, for the soft fruit grower who can’t get enough pickers after July this year.”