I’m sure robots are very nice, but I don’t want them picking my fruit
After one of my regular 4.30am starts last week, I caught a snippet of a feature on Farming Today about fruit-picking robots. Hearing about the multi-billion-pound mechanical arms and 3D sensors of this new machine, I was filled with something like sadness. Not just because of what this says about our self-inflicted workforce shortage (sigh) due to political foot-shooting and the undervaluing of manual work. But because fruit picking could be so different.
I once spent an interesting few nights in New Zealand, sharing a motel with about 50 apple-pickers from Vanuatu, Samoa and beyond. We listened to reggae, washed our pants in the sink and smoked cigarettes as they told me about thinning out baby apples, and picking pineapples and peaches. It was a hard life, absolutely no doubt. A dawn start in a cramped rented room, sleeping under polyester floral eiderdowns with nothing but a kettle and a juddering shower, before being driven to different farms is not easy work. And, of course, these setups are rife with corruption and exploitation and modern slavery. But are robots our only alternative?
My mum talks, probably with a certain amount of nostalgia, about seeing London families turn up in Kent in the 1950s to pick fruit on the farms as a summer holiday. After nursery, I often cycle my son half an hour out of town to a farm where you can pick strawberriesand raspberries and rip artichokes off huge green thistles. He loves it. He is animated and delighted by the smell of plants, the feel of soil, the art of guessing which is the most delicious. Of course, this is to farming what The Wheels on the Bus is to transport planning within the M60, but it still feels important that he at least sees where fruit comes from. I want him to appreciate the effort and energy and resources that go into producing it; the miracle of pollination; the tenacity of weather and the risk of farming.
I fear that robotic fruit-pickers might be just another step that takes us away from understanding how our food is grown: the swarms of plastic packaging, the brightly lit supermarket aisles, the insulated doorstep deliveries and plucked, cut, washed and sliced ingredients.
I worry that we are making food – the whole act of eating – a hands-off experience.