Trump vs. Smart Tomatoes: It’s a Pick’em

A prediction earlier this week from a Canadian academic suggested Donald Trump’s presidency would cause food prices in Canada to rise in 2017.

Here’s why. To make America great again, Trump has said he’s going to deport illegal immigrant workers. If he succeeds, that effort will include getting rid of the ballooning number of illegal immigrants who perform manual labour on farms there.

The Pew Research Center there says about 26 per cent of farmworkers in the U.S. are undocumented immigrants. Undocumented workers make up an even higher percentage of seasonal workers. Pew says about 85 per cent of fruit and vegetables are hand-picked by farmworkers.

If even a small percentage of them go, some parts of U.S. agriculture will be a mess.

First, farmers would have to pay legal Americans more to do the same job (that assumes they can find any who would even entertain the idea).

Then, the higher cost of labour would be passed on to consumers, which is one reason 2017 forecasts are calling for higher food prices.

Will Americans pay more to follow Trump’s vision for making their country great again in this way…or will they simply buy cheaper imports?

Canada struggles mightily with farm labour problems, too. At an outlook event recently at the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs headquarters in Guelph, panellist Alison Robertson, executive director of the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, expressed her concerns about labour.

The sector, she said, “is on an unsustainable path.”

She noted that 12 per cent of our agricultural labour force comprises foreign workers. From 2004 to 2014, Canada’s agricultural labour gap almost doubled in size to 59,200 people.  By 2025, she said, that gap is predicted to balloon again to about 114,000 unfilled jobs.

And all this doesn’t even take into account the opportunity costs – or more accurately, the non-opportunity costs. “If there are not enough workers to do the job, value is lost,” said Robertson. “Labour is our number one issue.”

At the outlook event, a potential solution put forward to the chronic labour crunch was robotics, particularly in greenhouses. Robertson says robots could allow a farmer to focus less on manual labour, and more on creating value.

And why not? Automation and technology is a staple on farms. Robots have become a success in the dairy barn, milking cows. It seems reasonable that they could succeed in the comparatively quiet, clean and predictable confines of the greenhouse, too.

Next door to the OMAFRA headquarters, at the University of Guelph, progress is being made on robots for greenhouses.

Pioneering researcher and engineering professor Medhat Moussa has developed a robot called the Guelph Intelligent Greenhouse Automation System. It’s a robotics unit that he says has the potential to initially harvest and de-leaf plants. At some point, he sees it also scouting for disease and predicting yield.

He’s been working on the technology since 2010. This winter, two prototypes are planned to operate continuously in Ontario greenhouses.

The capital investment is what puts most prospective robotics users off. However, a robotic unit it would pay for itself in about three to four years, says Moussa.

And he predicts it would be a hit with consumers, because it would offer them information they’re coming to expect with many other commodities. At the outlook event, panellists talked of “smart” greenhouse tomatoes, in which each piece of fruit has its own production history and nutritional profile, based on coding from the robot that nurtured it and harvested it.

Even Donald Trump can’t do that.

But his policies could drive up food prices. And that’s another thing to keep an eye on as we inch further towards his inauguration.

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