Farming is a high-tech business today

The world population, currently 7.6 billion, is expected to reach 9.8 billion in 2050 according to a new United Nations report. The demand for food will continue growing as a result of both population growth, rising income, and, possibly, the increased use of biofuel. Agricultural production will have to increase by 70% by 2050 in order to meet the demand.

Agriculture is the basis for the successful economic transformation of many developing countries like China, Vietnam, and other rapidly growing Asian economies. In a report, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) suggests that many developing countries are on the path to such transformation.

In order to feed ourselves, we need to apply new approaches to the old industry. In today’s world, agriculture is a high-tech business. Big corporations have started to play a more visible role, while small farmers and ranchers rely on the digital tools developed by those corporations or by startups to produce more food.

Big Ag

Big Ag, also know as Big Agriculture, refers to large agricultural corporations which are often considered to be the root of problem with regards to human health and the environment–including land pollution and antibiotic resistance, among others.

Monsanto is a prototypical big agriculture corporation. Monsanto is the leader in agribiotech; or, more specifically, genetically engineered seeds. Monsanto was among the first to genetically modify crops. The protests against Monsanto and GMO’s is endless, particularly on social media channels such as WeChat Moments. Most anti-GMO proponents think GMO foods have potentially adverse health effects.

Because of this sensitivity to food safety, most big corps are under strict surveillance. The major GMO seed providers, including Monsanto, Bayer, and DuPont, all believe in the safety and environmental benefits of GMO crops. Today, big agricultural corporations can no longer separate sustainability from profitability. Companies invest in biotech research in order to find sustainable and adaptive ways to grow food for us and future generations on limited arable land. Large corporations have helped keep crop yields high and food prices low with their sophisticated production equipment, well-established distribution systems, and reliable storage technology.

Large corporations have plotted different strategies in Asia, which is the region with the densest and highest demand for food. For example, China has only 8% of the world’s arable land and only 6% of its water, but must feed 20% of the world’s population. Monsanto partners with China National Seed Group Co., Ltd. to provide genetically modified corn and vegetable seeds to help boost yields.

Through the Grow Asia Initiative, Monsanto worked together with the Vietnamese government to help farmers transition their rice paddy fields to corn and soybean fields, while preserving the rice-growing ecosystem that is still important to Vietnam.

Big data

Traditionally, agriculture required little knowledge and a lot of hard work. Today, agriculture is more related to big data. A very large volume of data is generated from farmland, including weather, water, soil, fertilizer, pests, breeding, indoor lighting, disease, and GPS. Collecting data and turning it into insight is challenging yet rewarding for better decision making. With the rapid development of sense and control technology, big data has played a pivotal role in modern agriculture. Startups and big corporations have the same interest in this field.

In China, a Guangzhou based startup, AIRAG, offered smart monitoring and management systems to Chinese farmers. One farmer in Yunfu, Guangdong used the AIRAG system to raise production from 65 metric tons per year to 80 metric tons per year.

Photo: AIRAG

The Indian startup, SatSure, uses sensing and data analytical technology to develop crop insurance products and provide accurate risk assessments of crop yield. SatSure hopes their products will help increase investment in agricultural businesses in India in the age of climate change.

Photo: SatSure

The young farming generation embraces emerging technology and focuses on sustainability. Some of them received higher education. Mr. Jianxing Lin is an engineer-turned-farmer in Guangdong, China. He invested in a field monitoring system for his land in 2016. His vegetable is unique for the narrow growing temperature and requires timely irrigation. The system helped him to predict and precisely control the timing of irrigation by detecting the temperature of the plant’s roots. Mr. Lin uses his communication engineering background to invent a mist irrigation system to make a constant growing microclimate for his plants.

Big corporations are part of this digital business wave. Monsanto has spent more than $1 billion in recent years on expanding its digital platform. It acquired Climate Corp (for climate data), partnered with Vermis Technologies (for soil mapping), and invested in Resson (for image analytics). DuPont Evalio® Digital Services offers free tools for farmers to identify weeds and monitor pests. A farmer can order DuPont herbicide after identifying a weed using the Evalio APP on his or her cellphone.

Conclusion

The efficiency of food production in developed countries is much higher than in developing countries. A cow in the United States produces 8.4 tons of milk every year, while a cow in China produces only 3.7 tons per year, and, in India, 1 ton per year. This is largely due to a lack of knowledge and technology. For two countries with large populations, China and India are ready to integrate technology into agriculture.

FAO is cautiously optimistic about our potential to feed ourselves in 2050. With increasing investment and research into agriculture, I look forward to the two countries overcoming the challenge and feeding the population sustainably.

(Top photo from 58pic.com)

Fang Yuan
Fang Yuan

Fang Yuan is our columnist. She used to live in New York and is originally from Shanghai. She is a Certified Passive House Consultant and works on sustainable building consulting. She believes that technology helps people and the environment if it is being used mindfully.

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