My Lords, one farming subject that comes up regularly is the picking of crops and migrant workers—or the lack of them. The UK needs seasonal workers, and the permanent agricultural workforce relies heavily on EU Labour. Brexit, minimum wages and the fall in sterling have already challenged this model of reliance, added to now by the coronavirus pandemic. There are sound business and environmental reasons to maximise self-sufficiency in food production, and within that, it is important to stress greater self-sufficiency in harvesting, which we know is difficult to do with UK workers.
The fourth industrial revolution offers exciting opportunities for farmers to increase productivity, protect the environment and make farming safer, but there is still hesitancy in the UK through a lack of technology training, a lack of capital finance and waiting for the next generation of development—alas, too often meaning development in other countries.
Robot picking technology has moved a long way already. In Spain, octopus-like robots pluck strawberries. In the US, machines vacuum apples off trees. Last year, UK trials on raspberry and strawberry pickers began, but the refrain remains that large-scale deployment, including to small farms, is 10 years away—the same as was estimated four years ago. With Brexit and the pandemic creating the perfect storm, will the Government make self-sufficiency in harvesting and mechanisation a priority, and bring down that 10-year horizon? This fits with investment in future-oriented technology and British high-tech manufacturing.