Traditionally the person who cares for stock is the epitome of the careful and caring working. The good shepherd watches his flock at night, the cowboy carries the weak calf on his own back. But a recent blog post, Workers, robots and progress in the food industry, seems to me to be making a rather different argument:
1) Farm and slaughterhouse work is undesirable because it is long hours or hard manual labor.
2) Therefore we use immigrant labor, often including illegal immigrants who may be underpaid and unfairly exploited.
3) It might be better if we use robots.
I can follow this argument from the point of view of a current farmer responding to immediate pressures. But as a person who is able to step back a bit from the melee of making a living in the current economic climate, I disagree with it at every step. This is not just because I can "afford to be unpragmatic". But because our society should, and must, do better than this.
1) Farm and slaughterhouse work is important and we need to find a way to reflect this in the working conditions and pay.
2) Whether the worker is a citizen, an immigrant or even an illegal immigrant they must be treated the same.
3) Robots are ultimately tools not replacements for people. The robot should allow that human care to be freed up from repetitive tasks but skilled human supervision should be available at all times.
Raising animals, moving animals and killing animals is a task that must be carried out mindfully by caring, skilled humans--including the direct involvement of the owner (or their proxy, the manager) of the animals or the facility. If a workplace has become so intolerable that the owners will not willingly spend a lot of time there, and no human could be reasonably expected to do the job, the answer is not to replace them with a robot.
A farm or slaughterhouse not fit for workers is not fit for animals either. It should not be patched with technology, but fixed with the intelligent application of ethics, psychology, business expertise and technology. In some cases this is not, I can clearly see, an easy task. But any step that excuses the lack of skilled stockmen in the raising, transport and killing of animals is only going to delay and impede progress to the real solution.
A good shepherd may choose to use an augur to distribute feed, a web cam to watch by night or robotics to milk a cow or collect an egg. The one who watches, who cares, who moves and who kills an animal must be a stockperson who cares about that animals--but to appropriately care for any animal you must also care about that animal. That is why the good shepherd is not a robot.
I do not think we have arrived at a place where it would be easier to teach a robot to care, than teach a person to. I do not think we have arrived at a place where we cannot hire and train caring people, where we cannot oversee and guide their work so that it retains that quality. And if we have, then it lends legitimacy to the demands of those who question whether we should farm animals at all. I can, will and do defend the good shepherds, the good farmers, the humane slaughterhouse. But if an industry in solidarity demands that the consumer choose between the bad shepherd (or the shepherd who is not clearly good) or no shepherd at all, they may be surprised by the outcome.