Michael Rose and An Wang from The Mixing Bowl recently spoke about labor challenges in the food and agriculture markets with Sonny Ramaswamy, Director, National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) at the United States Department of Agriculture. NIFA provides leadership and funding for programs that propel cutting-edge discoveries, from research laboratories to farms, classrooms, and communities, to advance agriculture-related sciences.
The Mixing Bowl: What are some of the most pressing issues that agricultural and food workers face in America?
Sonny Ramaswamy: We have a challenging situation in regard to labor, whether it be on the farm, in a processing or packaging facility, or in the service sector to operate restaurants and grocery stores. These challenges travel from the farm to the dinner table. Our team has done some analysis and classified the workforce realm in four domains: “The folks that actually produce the food (the farmers and livestock producers);” “college graduates;” “extension personnel;” and “talent to discover new knowledge.” Let me explain:
- Farmers & livestock producers. We need to have people willing to become farmers and grow our food, particularly because of the aging farmer population in the U.S. and around the world. According to our USDA sister agency, the National Agricultural Statistics Service, their last 5-year census in 2012 found the average age of an American farmers to be 58.3 years. I expect that number will climb up to 59-60 years in their upcoming 2017 report. We need to be very concerned about this issue, as we need to have actual people to produce food.
- Community college and undergraduate degree holders. As this group gets ready to enter the workforce at big food and ag companies, like General Mills John Deere or ADM, to work on the line or as a technician or in a technical sales role, we have huge challenges. These employment opportunities are growing, but there is a significant shortage of graduates from two and four-year educational institutions with the right skills and expertise.
- Extension personnel. Extension through our land-grant universities is a unique American system. Extension program-trained personnel take knowledge, translate it into solutions, and deliver it to end users. This connectivity between discovery, translation, and delivery used to be a very important element in the United States’ innovation process. However, due to decreased funding and economic downturns, we have lost a third of that footprint of personnel in the extension system throughout the past 20 years.
- Talent to discover new knowledge. This is critical in the context of an increasing population and an increasing need to ensure nutritional security and healthy outcomes. Instead of thinking just about calories, we need to think about nutritional constituents and making sure they have good health outcomes. We have a threat that I like to call “nutritional security.” There is a significant population of people who are obese or have Type 2 diabetes. We have 50,000 people globally drop dead daily due to these issues. We have people who rely on drugs to address hypertension, cholesterol, and Type 2 diabetes every day. Conversely, 29,000 people and 8,000 children die globally every day due to lack of food. In the U.S., there are 16 million households that are considered food insecure. Thus, in the context of nutritional security, diminishing environmental resources and changing consumer behavior, we need to think about what type of new knowledge we will need to produce our food.
The Mixing Bowl: According to Partnership for a New American Economy, a yearly shortage of farm workers has caused a $3.1 billion loss in just fruit and vegetable production. The Bureau of Labor Statistics and National Restaurant Association are projecting a shortage of food-and-beverage workers and a need for 200,000 more line cooks and chefs in the next ten years. What has caused positions to go unfilled?
Sonny Ramaswamy: The growing population and demand for food, along with the large percentage of food production that is exported is driving growth. Almost one third of our farms’ gate value is exported. Many people simply aren’t willing to work in the hot sun or during a cold winter, so we rely on imported labor. Labor is one of the most expensive propositions in this enterprise and we do rely on foreign-born labor. One way NIFA is working toward a solution is through robotics research. We partner very closely with, for example, the National Science Foundation, National Robotics Initiative, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to address this challenge together.
The Mixing Bowl: Do you have any insight into how food production jobs may have already been affected by technology requirements?
Sonny Ramaswamy: Absolutely. A perfect example is the restaurant Eatsa in the Bay Area. At Eatsa, you are served without seeing anyone prepare your food. The new technologies being developed and applied have largely happened due to lack of availability of labor and the higher cost of labor, both of which have a significant impact on a restaurant’s bottom-line. There is an incredible amount of automation going on. In the U.S., as we have seen in the auto industry and other sectors, any repetitive processes now take one to two people versus ten to do the job.