Agriculture after Covid-19
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Agriculture after Covid-19

Expect more automation to reduce reliance on seasonal and migrant labour.

As the Covid-19 pandemic forces countries to close their borders, their agricultural sectors are confronting major challenges. Even in countries that are unlikely to face food insecurity -- such as those in Europe and North America -- farms are facing severe labour shortages as new barriers keep low-cost workers out.

The impact of this disruption on the supply of workers is likely to spur permanent shifts within the sector after the pandemic ends.

The risks inherent in depending on foreign seasonal workers are clear in several European countries, including France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands, which depend on labour from Eastern Europe. Between border closures and fears of sickness and quarantine, those workers are not coming this season, and many Western European crops are set to rot in the fields.

In parts of the United States, fears about farm labour shortages were mounting even before the Covid-19 crisis. Americans do not want to work in the fields, so farmers depend largely on seasonal Mexican migrants. Participants in the H-2A visa programme -- covering those who have been hired to fill agriculture jobs lasting less than one year -- comprise 10% of all farm workers in the US.

Yet the cost and complexity of the H-2A programme has long been a significant barrier for migrant workers. With the pandemic, that challenge has been compounded. Although US consular officers may now waive the visa interview for first-time applicants and returning workers, H-2A processing has slowed considerably.

Add to that new health and safety burdens for employers, who must uphold social-distancing protocols not only at work, but also in the housing and transport they provide to H-2A workers, and agricultural productivity is set to decline significantly.

After this experience, it seems unlikely that farmers will return to business as usual. Instead, many will probably attempt to mitigate the risks stemming from dependence on foreign seasonal workers by automating more of their operations.

To be sure, automation requires considerable up-front investment, and some jobs (such as harvesting fruits and vegetables) are more difficult to automate than others. But technologies such as drones, autonomous tractors, seeding robots and robotic harvesters imply a dramatic reduction in reliance on migrant labour.

If large agricultural producers in advanced economies take these steps, their peers in developing countries may follow suit, even in places without labour shortages. For example, South Africa has a large supply of unskilled, often unemployed workers well suited to farm work. It does, however, face skilled-labour shortages.

With the entire food supply chain classified as "essential" during the Covid-19 lockdown, agricultural activities in South Africa have continued uninterrupted. Even before the Covid-19 crisis, the country's 2012 National Development Plan (NDP) had set a target of increasing employment in agriculture and agricultural processing by roughly a million by 2030, including through the promotion of labour-intensive subsectors and an increase in farmland.

So far, such efforts have led to the expansion of crops including citrus fruit, macadamia nuts, apples, table grapes, avocados and soybeans. Employment in primary agriculture grew from 718,000 in the last quarter of 2012 to 885,000 in the last quarter of 2019 -- a 23% increase.

But, after the pandemic, technological diffusion is also likely to accelerate, not because of domestic market conditions, but because of the need to compete in global markets with advanced-country producers that embrace automation.

In fact, the NDP also aims to increase agricultural investment in irrigation, boost productivity and expand export markets -- all objectives that could enable, or necessitate, greater automation in South Africa.

The same goes for the increase in agricultural land, especially in the former homelands and underperforming land-reform farms. The provinces of KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape, and Limpopo collectively have between 1.6 million and 1.8 million hectares of underused arable land, according to a 2015 study by the McKinsey Global Institute. Automation could be built into the process of developing this land for agriculture.

More broadly, during the post-Covid-19 recovery phase, policymakers and producers in all countries with large-scale agriculture will have to pay close attention to trends in automation.

As for workers, while agricultural jobs in countries such as South Africa are likely to remain plentiful, those who depend on seasonal jobs in the advanced economies should prepare for even more uncertainty ahead.

Wandile Sihlobo is chief economist of the Agricultural Business Chamber of South Africa and the author of "Finding Common Ground: Land, Equity and Agriculture". ©Project Syndicate, 2020,

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