Fields of Glass: Labour, Techno-Science and Bio-politics in Agrarian Systems

In the UK, farmers and growers are increasingly warning of a food supply crisis. Following Brexit, Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine, energy price increases and labour supply shortages have become such serious issues that some have had to stop producing whilst others are unable to harvest crops. This could lead to further reliance on food imports, thereby increasing the carbon footprint of food miles and maintaining an agri-food system reliant on cheap food prices.

Recent government policy agendas have called for the partial ‘re-shoring’ of agri-food value chains. The government’s 2022 Food Strategy commits to “an increase in industrial horticulture” involving “highly productive, high tech, controlled environment growing operations including multi-acre glasshouses” (DEFRA 2022: 16). This ‘Fields of Glass’ vision also includes the presence of agricultural technology (AgTech) that sees robotic, autonomous systems working alongside the human labour force. AgTech automation is seen as the solution to expanding domestic agri-food value chains under considerable pressure from escalating costs, tight margins, supermarket price pressures, and significant labour supply issues. But can these advancements really help to secure what is a fragile system? What are the wider consequences of these developments?


The fragility at the heart of food supply systems is not a new problem – the food supply industry and government policy have struggled for generations with combining scientific innovations and labour supply regulation, particularly in the glasshouse agri-food sector. ‘Fields of Glass: Labour, Techno-Science and Bio-politics in Agrarian Systems’ takes the glasshouse agri-food value chain as its focus and develops a critical framework for analysing how our agri-food system is structured around a precarious seasonal labour model and the ecological dynamics of crop-growing – an understanding missing from current policy and academic debates.

‘Fields of Glass’ is a Leverhulme Trust Major Research Fellowship led by Professor Adrian Smith (Management, University of Sussex Business School).

Research Approach

The project places the current agri-food value chain in both its historical and global context, providing the first detailed historical-geographical account of the interaction of labour, food production, and technical and scientific change and regulation in glasshouse horticulture in the UK based on:

  • extensive archival research of government papers in The National Archives in Kew as well as local archival holdings on glasshouse horticulture in West Sussex and Hertfordshire – home to the UK’s main clusters of glasshouse horticulture industry
  • interviews with key stakeholders, including glasshouse growers
  • analysis of policy literature and industry meetings

Through a pioneering assessment of the dynamic intersection of technology, work, employment and food security in agri-food value chains, this study aims to further current understanding and make a major contribution to global value chain debates. The work also seeks to formulate new perspectives with several key questions being addressed, such as:

  • In what ways have scientific and state regulation shaped forms of production and the labour force in the glasshouse agri-food sector?
  • How does an understanding of the historical development of techno-scientific and labour resources enable us to understand better questions over ensuring food supply chain security today?


In addition to research papers on various aspects, the project will lead to a substantial research book that not only seeks to trace the empirical and historical focus of the research but will also present a new thesis to refocus current academic and policy debates on the interaction of political economy, labour regimes and bio-politics.