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Robots to Transform Farming and Cut Migrant Labour Dependency, says Sunak

Fruit-picking robots could significantly reduce the need for migrant labour, Rishi Sunak said to farmers as he revealed a £220 million fund for new technology.

Speaking at the National Farmers’ Union conference, the Prime Minister spoke of the investment aimed at enhancing productivity within the agricultural sector through advanced technology. A government insider mentioned that the funding might cover the costs for robots and drones designed for harvesting crops such as apples and asparagus.

“We aim to ensure farmers have access to the latest equipment, including devices that increase automation to lessen dependence on foreign workers,” the source explained.

The £220 million ‘future-focused technology fund’ forms part of a broader scheme of farm grants, totalling approximately £427 million for this year. Sunak said he would commit to never overlooking the importance of food security and assure farmers of the government’s support.

His address follows a poll indicating a slight preference for Labour among rural voters, who believe neither of the major parties fully understands rural communities. The agricultural sector has been navigating challenges such as increased costs for fuel and fertiliser due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the transition to a new post-Brexit farming payments system focusing on sustainable agriculture.

Sunak, potentially the first prime minister to speak at the NFU conference since Gordon Brown, emphasised his commitment to regaining rural support. This commitment was highlighted by his decision to reschedule the weekly Cabinet meeting to attend the event in Birmingham.

Last year, the government faced criticism from farmers, expressed during a speech by then-environment secretary Therese Coffey, regarding supermarket shortages not being a sign of ‘market failure’.

In his speech, Sunak commented on the turbulent times faced by farmers due to rising energy and fertiliser costs, on top of leaving the EU’s common agricultural policy. “While the significance of farmers remains constant, farming is undergoing its most significant transformation in a generation,” he stated.

“As farmers navigate these changes, this government will stand with them.”

He will further note the impact of global events, such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, on food security, reinforcing the commitment to not take it for granted. With up to 55,000 migrant workers granted temporary visas for agricultural work last year, the government believes that technological advancements could gradually diminish the need for migrant labour, thereby helping to reduce overall immigration numbers.

Although some companies have developed drones capable of harvesting crops like apples, adoption has been slow, with only the largest farms finding it economically viable.

A government study suggests that ‘autonomous selective harvesting’ could offer significant labour savings but might not be commercially available until at least 2030 without governmental support.


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