The demise of humanity at the hands of machines has long been a preoccupation of science fiction writers, but a more pressing worry has been robots putting humans out of work. As digital technologies help farmers gain productivity around the globe, how will jobs be affected?
Will we be able to ensure our creations don’t violate writer Isaac Asimov’s most fundamental—“zeroth”—law for his creations? “A robot may not injure humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.”
The answer for digital agriculture’s effect on employment can be summed up this way: it depends.
In low-income countries where labor is cheap and capital relatively expensive, the agricultural sector often represents a large share of total employment. The sector is dominated by small-holder farmers operating at a small scale, often tending to their plots themselves or with support from family members. It is not clear that these farmers will find it cost-effective to adopt new technologies in the short term, particularly those that replace their own labor or the casual workers they seasonally employ.
Over time, the gradual adoption of cheaper and appropriate technologies could encourage the traditional model of structural transformation—the consolidation of land, and a shift in employment out of the sector. These labor-augmenting technologies themselves may allow farmers to diversify their portfolios and spend more time on downstream activities that could be more profitable. Yet this transition will take time, so we don’t expect a strong displacement effect in the short run.
On the other hand, in middle and high-income countries capital is relatively cheaper, agriculture is operated on a larger scale, and the adoption of digital technologies is a more appealing prospect for farmers and firms across the value chain. In middle-income countries, digital technology could be beneficial (and labor-substituting) for activities that have already begun the process of automation, such as food processing. Automation can help allay concerns of food safety and remove human contact from the system where possible, an even more urgent concern given the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In developed countries, evidence already shows that digital agriculture has the potential to open up new pathways for employment. For example, the United States is beginning to see an uptick in employment numbers for specialized roles in marketing, precision agriculture, data analysis, and operation of digital technologies.
Widespread availability of information also allows farmers to better understand consumer desires and develop niche products and services, such as organic foodstuffs, meat alternatives, and farm-to-table services. That can create jobs in these new lines of business (although evidence suggests that the effect on employment is highest for on-farm, rather than off-farm jobs, as country income increases).
In theory, digital disruption can have a democratizing effect as employment in the sector is dictated less by physical capabilities but rather uptake of digital skills. Across all income levels, the youth may be energized by the new applications of digital technologies in the food system. In high-income countries, the digital transformation of agriculture holds the promise to reduce economic, spatial, and social divides in rural areas through a growth in high-paying, quality jobs normally concentrated in urban areas.
However, without close monitoring and thoughtful action, there remains the risk of widening the “digital divide” in all countries, regardless of income level. Access to education and training in digital agriculture technologies is by no means equal in many locales. In many countries, availability of local information and communications technology infrastructure (cellular and broadband coverage), as well as access to technology prerequisites (mobile phones, smart phones, tablets and data subscriptions) can be sparse in low-income, remote rural locations.
Some scholars conclude that agricultural digitalization could reinforce existing social divides, where job opportunities and training mainly benefit privileged groups. Another factor to consider is the effect of new technologies on migration as a pathway to development. Farms in rich countries simultaneously require more labor, often filled by migrants, while political sentiment increasingly discourages this solution. Urgent policy attention is needed to address this problem—such as guest worker programs—or farmers risk losing competitiveness even as consumers demand more locally grown, environmentally sustainable (and costly) foods.
A key step that can be undertaken by policymakers in the short term is to create job-training programs and invest in skill development to provide workers the capabilities needed to harness the labor-augmenting force of new technologies and take-up new digital jobs. Additionally, demand-driven solutions by governments, through aiding promising firms, can help spur private sector investment and job growth.
Lastly, policy solutions across the developing world (and even in some middle and high-income countries) must address gaps in the requisite digital infrastructure in rural areas, such as high-speed networks and the availability of affordable hardware, for digital agriculture to take hold in the first place. This recent WB paper, as well as the 2019 World Development Report on the Changing Nature of Work, shows our latest thinking on social protection policies for labor displacement.
So, will the machines designed to boost productivity ultimately violate Asimov’s “zeroth law” and hurt humanity more than they help? Please join our discussion on this topic in the comment section below.
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