Written by: Richard Lightbound , CEO of ROBO Global EMEA
Here in the UK, the challenges of Brexit are many, but one that will likely have a near-immediate impact on food supply—and food prices—is the looming shortage of agricultural workers. It’s estimated that once Brexit takes effect, the UK will lose tens of thousands of farm workers from across the EU who will be unable to work in the county. That dramatic loss will leave a vast gap in our agricultural labour force.
In Japan, so many workers have aged out of the farming business that the country is already in a desperate scramble to produce enough food for its fast-growing population—few of whom are learning the skills required to fill the shoes of retired farm workers. The situation has created a crisis that is both economic and social. In the US, the average age of a farmer is now 58 years old and rising. It’s no wonder both countries are urgently seeking solutions to this critical shortage of trained and capable human resources.
While these countries may be in the most extreme circumstances at the moment, it’s clear that meeting demand across the food and agricultural supply chain is a crisis that reaches around the globe. Population growth is accelerating worldwide, with total population estimates approaching 10 billion by 2050, and that growth will translate into the need to increase food production by 70% in the next 35 years.  How can such an increase be supported? There’s only one viable solution: robotics, automation, and artificial intelligence.
If the first image that comes to your mind is a fleet of farm-friendly Roombas combing the fields for ripe produce, you’re not entirely wrong. But in fact, robotic “pickers” are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how robotics, automation, and artificial intelligence, or RAAI (pronounced “ray”) is transforming the food and agriculture industry. Today, RAAI is driving major changes in how food is planted, monitored, fed, weeded, watered, and harvested. And the supply chain doesn’t stop there—nor do the potential applications for RAAI to drive efficiencies and cost savings. Once food is out of the fields, precision robots are changing how that food is handled, warehoused, and distributed. Every area of this long and complex process being disrupted by the introduction of robotics. And though it may be easy to assume that this disruption is taking jobs away from a willing workforce, the truth is that applying innovative technologies is the only way possible to fill the void of human workers at a time when a highly productive labour force is more needed than ever.
From seed to store to table, the race to apply RAAI across the agricultural supply chain is accelerating at a record pace. And because automation and innovation is necessary for our very survival, that pace simply cannot, and will not, slow down.
As a result, demand is skyrocketing for agricultural-specific solutions that are already on the market. Companies like Deere & Co, John Bean Technologies, and Raven Industries – all members of the ROBO Global Robotics & Automation Index - are seeing demand for food and agriculture solutions soar. Much more useful than self-driving cars, self-driving tractors are enabling what’s called precision farming . Today, these “smart” farming vehicles can evaluate how much fertilizer is needed on a particular square foot of soil and automatically adjust the amount of fertilizer it delivers. “Smart” planters use artificial intelligence to maximize the yield of each field, and “smart” irrigation systems use water sensors to not only increase the yield of each field by as much as 10%, but also reduce water waste by as much as 50%.
But what may be even more important than existing technologies are those that are still in design and are poised to bring even greater change to the industry. These RAAI-based technologies are designed to further increase production yields and lower costs, while simultaneously delivering significant environmental benefits. Water savings is a given, but RAAI can also make it possible to use other limited resources more effectively by reducing over-fertilizing, minimizing the need for excess pesticides, and keeping workers out of harms way to preserve our precious human resources. And while many of us are already becoming accustomed to warehouse-to-home delivery of non-perishable items, the ability to automate distribution processes is expected to make doorstep-delivery of perishable items commonplace as well.
This global transition presents an urgent and nearly unprecedented opportunity for investors who are aware of the wave of change that’s already riding a strong tide. The penetration of RAAI throughout the food and agriculture sector is not only anticipated—it is inevitable. Because this is true across the entire ecosystem of the food supply chain, its reach is almost incomprehensible.
That opportunity is the very reason our team created the ROBO Global Robotics & Automation Index over four years ago. Designed expressly to help investors capture the incredible potential of the then-nascent robotics, automation, and AI market, the Index now includes more than 80 companies that are selected on an ongoing basis by our team of top industry thought-leaders. As one of the 12 subsectors included in the ROBO Index, food and agriculture is expected to play an important role in the future growth of the global robotics and automation value chain for many years to come.