June 16, 2024

Fruit-picking robots could slash the need for migrant labour, Rishi Sunak to tell farmers as he unveils £220 million fund for new technology

Fruit-picking robots could slash the need for migrant labour, Rishi Sunak will tell farmers today.

Addressing the National Farmers’ Union conference, the Prime Minister will unveil a £220 million fund to help deploy new technology to help boost productivity in the agriculture sector.

A government source said the cash could include money for robots and drones to help pick crops like apples and asparagus.

‘We want to ensure farmers can access new equipment, including kit which increases automation to reduce reliance on overseas workers,’ the source said.

The £220 million ‘future focused technology fund’ is part of a wider package of farm grants which will be worth around £427 million this year.

The PM will pledge to ‘never take our food security for granted’ and tells farmers that the government is ‘by their side’ (Stock Image)
Fruit-picking robots could slash the need for migrant labour , Rishi Sunak will tell farmers today (Stock Image)

The PM will pledge to ‘never take our food security for granted’ and tells farmers that the government is ‘by their side’.

His speech comes in the wake of polling which found Labour had narrowly overtaken the Tories among countryside voters, who also felt neither main party understood rural communities.

Farmers have been dealing with the impacts of soaring costs of inputs including fuel and fertiliser since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, along with the move to a new post-Brexit regime of farming payments that focus on sustainable agriculture.

Mr Sunak is thought to be the first prime minister to address the NFU conference since Gordon Brown. His enthusiasm for winning back the rural vote was underlined yesterday when it emerged that he had moved the weekly Cabinet meeting from its usual Tuesday morning slot in order to attend today’s event in Birmingham.

Last year the Government was represented by the then environment secretary Therese Coffey who was heckled by farmers after arguing that shortages of some items on supermarket shelves were not a sign of ‘market failure’.

In his speech today, the PM will acknowledge that farmers have faced a turbulent period, with soaring energy and fertiliser prices coming on top of the departure from the EU’s common agricultural system.

‘While the importance of farmers will never change – farming is going through its biggest change in a generation,’ he will say. ‘And as farmers do so, this government will be by their side.’

He will add: ‘While thanks to you we enjoy good quality food all year round, global events – including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – have put food security back at the top of the agenda.

‘We’ll never take our food security for granted.’

Up to 55,000 migrant workers were issued with temporary visas to work in agricultural last year, many of them in the crop-picking and food processing sectors.

Ministers believe that technology could reduce the need for migrant labour over time, helping to cut overall immigration levels.

Some firms have developed drones that can pick crops like apples, but a government source said take-up had been slow, with only the largest farms able to make it pay.

A government study found that so-called ‘autonomous selective harvesting’ could produce ‘high labour savings’, but warned it was unlikely to be available on a commercial basis until at least 2030 without government support.

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