China Is Spearheading the Future of Agriculture
China is facing a number of growing pains, but one in particular has proved more taxing than most: How can China feed its rapidly growing population as the land suitable for cultivation disappears?
The country’s agriculture industry has long been rife with inefficiency, but now the government is doing something about it, ploughing billions into agricultural technology, or AgTech, as a means of maximising resources –and a raft of private-sector companies are following this lead. With the global population expected to pass 10 billion by the end of 2050, such actions are only set to become more critical with time. And if China, the world’s biggest agricultural producer, can manage to produce more with less, they can help teach the rest of the planet how to feed itself long into the future.
One of the most recent developments in the AgTech field came earlier this month, when China’s answer to Amazon, Alibaba, launched the ‘ET Agricultural Brain’ –a digital tool that enables farmers to raise their crop yields and income by leveraging big data. The Agricultural Brain’s AI-backed technology lets farmers digitally record information about their yields in order to better leverage the entire production cycle, raising efficiency and capacity.
The program has already been adopted by agricultural enterprises across China, especially in pig farming, where it can be used to monitor hogs’ daily activity and alert farmers when they get sick. According to proponents, the technology could increase the average sow’s annual reproduction rate by three piglets, an advance which could prevent a repeat of China’s recent pork shortage – and help the world meet the expected surge in pork consumption for years to come.
It’s easy to see the motivations for Alibaba’s investments. China has a fifth of the world’s entire population yet only 5% of its arable land. And that land is shrinking rapidly, eaten up by the economic boom which has created an insatiable demand for resource-intensive products such as milk and pork. Indeed, between 1995 and 2010, consumption of dairy alone rose four-fold. Meanwhile, urbanisation has eaten up millions of hectares of arable soil, while an estimated one-fifth of remaining land is too contaminated to cultivate. China’s official news agency has suggested that around 40% of China’s arable terrain has already been degraded by pollution and climate change, the by-products of the country’s urbanisation.
In response to this looming crisis, the government is also supporting new automation tools for the agriculture sector. This month, Beijing launched a seven-year autonomous agriculture pilot programme in Jiangsu Province to test a range of automated farming technologies, such as unmanned combine harvesters or robotic tractors. In the same vein as government-backed programs to create robots, driverless cars, and other automated technology, the initiative aims to turn tasks that were once done by hand or with heavy machinery – such as pesticide application or irrigation – into a seamless, automated process.
Like AI-driven farming technology, automated agriculture could help solve a number of issues in the sector. For one thing, not only will it help improve efficiency, raise yields, and increase incomes in China’s relatively poorer rural areas; it will also help make these operations more sustainable. Indeed, the Chinese farming industry is notorious for its carbon footprint, with its farmers responding to government incentives by pouring huge amounts of fertiliser into the soil. To ease this problem, Chinese scientists have analysed reams of agricultural data and shared their findings with farmers via a series of best-practice tips. The results of this project have been staggering; over 20 million farmers have signed up, and the scientists’ recommendations have enabled them to increase crop yields while slashing fertiliser use, already realising total financial savings of over $12 billion.
Given the dividends from such projects, it’s perhaps not surprising that comparable initiatives are taking place across the globe. In North America, the Climate Corporation, a subsidiary of Monsanto, analyses around 50 terabytes of weather data every day and sends the information to farmers via its SaaS platform, Climate.com. Founded by two former Google employees, the Climate Corporation’s goal is to leverage data to help farmers deal with the increasingly volatile weather caused by climate change. Meanwhile, in Africa, tech giant Microsoft recently partnered with Techno Brain, a company that uses GPS to collect rainfall, weather and soil nutrient data and informs farmers via SMS. The process is meant to help smallholder farmers increase their crop yields and income, given that they are the most dependent on rainfall and vulnerable to volatility caused by climate change.
Of course, such innovations haven’t come without their detractors. According to critics, this new wave of technology could have grave consequences for the global labour force. Earlier this year, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development warned that automation technology could eventually force 66 million people out of work, with agriculture one of the most at-risk industries. Robot fruit pickers are already replacing humans in some quarters, providing a bright vision of the future which is positively dystopian for some.
To be sure, the government will have to ensure there are training programs in place, especially for rural labourers that are set to be most impacted by this technology. Yet given the looming challenges, especially for a country like China, the long-term benefits of these innovations – higher yields, more resilient crops, and more targeted use of pesticides, to name just a few – surely outweigh this cost.