Queensland’s former Premier Campbell Newman is chairman of a company Swarm Farm that is developing robots for on-farm use, in tasks such as weeding (as reported in the Brisbane Times). This is fantastic technology and will be good for agricultural production and productivity. It is another application of technological improvements that boost on-farm productivity, with other recent applications including the remote operation of irrigation equipment by laptops (see this IT World story).
Of course, this productivity growth will be associated with labour savings, and I was reminded by the Swarm Farm story that productivity improvements in agriculture over the last few decades have been associated with a decline in the number of jobs in agriculture (see chart above). While the value of industry gross value added in agriculture, forestry and fishing has doubled since 1990, employment in the sector has fallen by around 40 per cent.
This productivity growth in agriculture is good for the economy because it frees up labour for more productive tasks, although possibly not for jobs in regional areas. The movement of people from less productive tasks on the land to more productive tasks in cities has long been associated with economic development. It explains in large part the strong economic growth China has experienced in recent decades, and it explains why the British Agricultural (or Agrarian) Revolution was a precursor to the Industrial Revolution.
That said, the productivity growth we are seeing on-farm should warn us not to expect an on-farm jobs bonanza from the agricultural export boom that is being forecast due to growing food demand from Asia.
Incidentally, the biography of Campbell Newman by Gavin King is being launched on October 7 in Brisbane:
This book should be a good read. Earlier this year, I was interviewed by the author regarding what recent Queensland political history means for the prospects for economic reform in Australia. I will certainly post a review of the book when it is released.