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Trends  |  Dossier The faces behind food

Future jobs in food production A review of the job landscape in a rapidly changing sector

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While the world population currently stands at over 7.5 billion, a United Nations report published in 2017 calculated that there will be 8.6 billion of us in 2030 and 9.8 billion by 2050.1 This means there will be 2.3 billion more mouths to feed. How are we going to do that?

Over recent centuries, developments in the agricultural sector have increased yields and the amount of land cultivated, thus enabling us to keep up with demand. However, during the last century in particular, deforestation, soil exhaustion, water pollution and decreased biodiversity have compromised the environment’s already fragile equilibrium. If we are to feed all the people in the world in 2050, we need to find new ways of producing more, more efficiently and without harming the environment. This means new expertise and new jobs, or changes to existing jobs, a revolution that will not only affect food production – farming, processing, logistics – but also the products and services available to consumers.

To meet these challenges, jobs within the agricultural sector will become more and more computerised and automated.2 Such precision agriculture (or intelligent agriculture) is more commonly known as smart farming.3


 

Farming (the smart way)

When developing their land, farmers have always taken the geological and meteorological environment into account. However, what was once guided by collective memory and farmers’ common sense is now driven by science and often assisted by technological decision-making tools, from the ancient temperature and humidity sensors to GPS and the use of big data. Nowadays, computers and smartphones can control everything via sensors placed on the ground, aboard farm vehicles, on drones and in cowsheds, or even attached to livestock. Farmers can thereby manage the yield of their various plots of land, optimise their use of fertiliser, view meteorological data, steer machines or check up on their animals’ health and wellbeing, all with greater accuracy.

Agricultural machines are becoming increasingly autonomous. Mechanisation changed farming practices in the last century, and automation is now set to change them further. The first robotic logistical support systems are already available to farmers. As an example, in 2011, researchers in France’s National Research Institute of Science and Technology for Environment and Agriculture (IRSTEA) invented robotic ‘mules’ to transport equipment or products while automatically following a person or group of people.4 And this is just the beginning! The first robots specialised in fertilisation, harvesting, weeding, or spraying fertiliser are in the making!5 Push-button equipment is also changing stockbreeders’ work: Programmable milking machines were first marketed twenty years ago and recent technological innovations for milking and feeding cattle are becoming more and more accessible. While robots were at first only profitable for large dairy farms, they are now viable for those with medium-sized herds of between 20 and 25 cows.6

The advent of smart farming (combining sensors, intelligence and the automation of tasks) is highly promising, yet it should be noted that technical progress does not appear to affect the number of hours farmers work. The time saved is used either to work more land or to manage larger herds.7

Professions in the agri-food industry undergoing major development

Jobs in research and development are growing fast. Researchers design, study and evaluate new products in laboratory conditions, then carry out live tests on a small scale. If the results are conclusive, these products can then be manufactured on an industrial scale. Research within the agri-food sector is constantly adapting to the evolution of constraints and to new consumer needs.

Professions related to product quality and to health and safety are also developing rapidly. The task of quality managers, or quality experts, is to optimise the standard of production processes, products or services. Their aim is to minimise or prevent production defects, raw material wastage, and late deliveries.

As logistics has become a key component of competitiveness, companies are now engaging transportation and logistics professionals to deliver their raw materials, ship their finished products and manage their stocks. To reduce costs and gain in efficiency, many companies subcontract these operations to specialists.

Finally, there are the marketing-related professions, such as market research, product management and brand management. This line of work focuses on consumer habits and on developing strategies to offer products which meet our needs, make us want to buy them and keep us coming back for more.

Some professions will disappear...

Many believe that this impending automation will threaten jobs at every stage of the agri-food industry (from farming through to retail). The jobs most likely to disappear or change completely are primarily those involving very structured, repetitive or arduous tasks.

In 2013, Oxford University researchers Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne published a study on the likelihood of seeing a job become automated within 20 years.8 As far as the food sector is concerned, they concluded there was a high probability that the work of agronomy technicians, fast-food waiting staff, chefs, bakers and many other professions in food production would become automated. This study caused quite a stir at the time and was often wrongly interpreted as predicting the disappearance of such jobs in their current form. A status report and a counter-study carried out a few years later by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)9 show that the situation is not quite that dramatic. While automation will transform many jobs, most jobs will not disappear entirely. It is clear though that automation will have repercussions on the level and type of employee qualifications and training.

Automation is already having an impact. Fully automated shops (or almost fully automated) are no longer a thing of the future. After a test phase in 2017, Amazon Go has just opened its first shop in Seattle, in the United States. When customers arrive in the store, they scan their mobile phones to be recognised. A series of sensors and cameras then automatically tracks products as they select them. Customers then receive an invoice for the items they chose directly on the app, without having to go through a checkout. Considering that Amazon already uses robots in its warehouses to transport products, it is not unreasonable to think that such shops could eventually function with scarcely any staff at all.

Several fast-food chains have rolled out self-service terminals across their outlets, increasing the number of sales points without requiring more staff. This should reduce customer-waiting time. The only contact customers have with employees is when the order is delivered. Even so, some fast-food chains are already going one step further, as customers can retrieve their order from a cubicle, without any contact with staff at all. In the near future, meal preparation will also be automated, as a single robot is able to handle the raw meat, bread buns, sauces and condiments to assemble and wrap as many as 400 hamburgers an hour.10

… others will evolve…

Some professions may not become fully automated, but will evolve with robotic assistance. Collaborative robots, or ‘cobots’, will function as aides to intervene in targeted ways on complex and delicate tasks that cannot be fully automated or that are too arduous. As an example, meat-processing companies are starting to use robotic arms in their cutting rooms, to exert more force on the meat.11 Operators can manage these robots via a (bionic) arm. Along the same lines, operators can wear robotic exoskeleton suits to increase their physical strength. This makes flipping a 45 kg cheese wheel or handling secondary packaging and pallets much easier.

Cobots don’t just help with physical tasks and heavy lifting. They also vastly reduce product wastage in factories. For example, a robotic hand can exert exactly the right amount of pressure to grasp any fragile product without damaging it. Cobots can be used to handle fresh fruit, crumbly biscuits, pastries, meatballs, etc, especially at the packaging stage.12


 

...and new jobs will be created

In the agri-food sector, scanning technology will help create a link between producers and consumers with regard to product traceability. Milk, for example, must be traceable every step of the way, from the farm to the consumer’s fridge. Eventually, all we will have to do is scan a product with our phone to know how it is made, where its ingredients come from and whether it meets all the required standards. All this will lead to the creation of new jobs linked to information system management and maintenance.13

Using robots will result in fewer manual jobs in industry, but there will be a need for new professions, such as production technicians and process engineers to design, maintain and adjust automatic machines.

New foodstuffs

The growth of the human population in a world of limited space and resources means we need to innovate. This includes exploring new sources of food for the future. Here are some recently or soon-to-be created professions in food production:

Insect farmer 

The production of beef, for example, is expensive, consumes vast quantities of water and emits high levels of greenhouse gases. Thus, since 2013, the World Health Organization has been promoting a more environmentally friendly kind of farming: breeding insects on a large-scale.14 Fewer than five years on, the first insect farmers are launching their start-ups and their products can now be found in our shops. However, they still have to face many legislative and cultural barriers.15

Microalgae farmer 

Microalgae are another new promising trend. We can already find spirulina and chlorella on our plates, whether as food supplements or incorporated into various foodstuffs. Spirulina16 not only adds nutritional value, but is also of particular interest to farmers looking to diversify, fast. These cyanobacteria can double in number in under four days! While China and the US account for most of the global production of spirulina, in 2016, France already boasted between 100 and 150 spirulina producers. There are also cooperation projects between farmers where, for example, biogas plants link up with greenhouses to make use of the heat for spirulina production.17

Lab-grown meat engineer

In 2013, Mark Post, a Dutch researcher, announced that he had designed the first lab-grown steak by growing bovine stem cells in a laboratory.18 Several start-ups are now getting in on the act. Bill Gates and Richard Branson, for example, have invested in the Californian start-up Memphis Meats, which is aiming to reduce production costs to compete with traditional meat. Currently, the price of meatballs is 40 US dollars per gram, but the start-up hopes to reduce this to just a few cents per gram by the end of the decade.19

Vertical farming

Local production through vertical urban farming20 may be the solution to guarantee food security in towns in the near future.21 A vertical farm in a skyscraper could theoretically feed 30 000 people with an average yield five to six times higher than that of traditional farming. Vertical farms combine the skills of architects, designers and agronomists and would also bring together the different ‘departments’ of the farming business in a single building (with, for example, production workshops on the upper floors, management offices on the middle floors and a direct sales room on the ground floor).

This method is already starting to be applied in large hangars in several countries (United States, India, Japan and in Europe). It remains to be seen whether it will create many jobs in the future. The trend is in fact more towards the complete automation of large-scale infrastructure. Japan, for example, already has several hundred vertical farms, some of which are owned by electronics conglomerates that manage them in a similar way to how they manage their ultraclean automated factories producing microchips or computers.22


 

When science fiction and reality merge

The use of 3D food printing has developed rapidly over recent years, with new and increasingly affordable machines. This evolution will change the work of professional chefs and others in the food industry. Many different kinds of food can already be printed, such as chocolate, flour, sugar and meat.23 Future prospects include the possibility of personalising our food (in terms of its shape and even its nutritional content). We will perhaps see the creation of new jobs, such as 3D food printing designers. You never know but, eventually, it may even be possible to download a chef’s recipe and print the dish to eat at home!

Some more adventurous futurologists are even predicting that nutrients will be delivered directly into our bloodstream by metabolic nanobots (nanometric sized robots).24 At the current rate of technological development, we are probably closer to eating virtual food than we think!

1. ONU Info, 2017.

2. ZAFFAGNI, Marc, 2014. GOUDET, Jean-Luc, 2014.

3. LA RÉDACTION, 2016. AGROSCOPE, no date.

4. IRSTEA, no date.

5. ZAFFAGNI, Marc, 2014. GOUDET, Jean-Luc, 2014.

6. MULLER, Claire, 2017.

7. UMSTÄTTER, Christina, STARK, Ruedi et SCHMID, Dierk, 2016.

8. FREY, Carl Benedikt & OSBORNE, Michael A., 2017 [2013].

9. ARNTZ, Melanie, GREGORY, Terry & ZIERAHN, Ulrich, 2016.

10. MCAFEE, Andrew & BRYNJOLFSSON, Erik, 2017.

11. ONISEP, 2017.

12. EVA, 2017.

13. ONISEP, 2017.

14. BACHÉ, Roxane, 2016.

15. LOUMÉ, Lise, 2017.

16. Spirulina is a form of spiral-shaped, blue-green microalgae growing naturally in brackish lakes in the earth’s tropical regions. It contains a large amount of essential nutrients, leading it to be seen as a superfood.

17. AGRIAVIS, 2016.

18. BBC NEWS, 2013.

19. BERGÉ, Frédéric, 2017.

20. The American microbiologist Dickson Despommier theorised the concept of ‘vertical urban farming’ (or ‘vertical farms’) in 1999, based on the idea of growing significant quantities of food products within skyscrapers, towers, walls or other vertical structures with a low surface area in order to reduce the environmental footprint of food production. In concrete terms, plant life piled up in artificial structures is drip fed a mix of water and nutrients, saving up to 70% of water compared to traditional farming methods. Production above the ground and under artificial light would also reduce the use of pesticides while maximising yield.

21. COMPÈRE, Pierre, 2012.

22. MARKS, Paul, 2015.

23. CHAMBRE RÉGIONALE DE MÉTIERS ET DE L’ARTISANAT DU LIMOUSIN, 2015.

24. KURZWEIL, Ray, 2007 [2005], p. 327.

Jean-Pierre Tutrone
Bevaix, CH
Jean-Pierre Tutrone graduated from the Université de Neuchâtel in vertebrate eco-ethology and plant ecology. He has applied his knowledge to several fields (labwork, databases, creating exhibitions for museums, popularisation of scientific information, etc.). He is particularly interested in the environment, but is also fascinated by a variety of other subjects related to history, science or new technologies.
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