- A team using artificial intelligence recently defeated traditional farmers in a Chinese strawberry growing competition
- China plans to restructure its small farming culture through wide digitalization in many areas
- The digital village model can help tackle the world’s growing food security problem
In May 2020, with technical support from UN FAO, the China Agricultural University and the Chinese e-commerce platform Pinduoduo held a “smart agriculture competition”.
Three groups of top strawberry growers (Traditional Teams) and four groups of artificial intelligence science experts (Technology Teams) participated in the strawberry growing competition in Yunnan Province, China.
The competition has been billed as an agricultural version of the historic go match between a human player and Google’s DeepMind artificial intelligence.
In the beginning, Traditional Teams had to draw on the best practices from their collective agricultural experiences. And they did it – for a while.
They led the way in efficient manufacturing for several months before Technology teams gradually caught up with Internet-enabled devices (such as smart sensors), data analysis, and fully digital greenhouse automation.
The final winner was announced in December 2020. The four Technology Teams produced an average of 6.86 kg of strawberries, compared to an average of 2.32 kg for the three traditional growing teams.
In addition, according to the organizers of the competition, technologists also surpassed farmers in return on investment by an average of 75.5%.
So what is the secret of technology that can surpass humans in growing strawberries? The answer seems to lie in more accurate data analysis and application.
Technology teams used knowledge-graph technology to collect historical cultivation data and image recognition of strawberries. This was then combined with water, fertilizer and greenhouse climate models to create a smart decision-making strategy.
Thus, they more accurately controlled the use of water and nutrients, and also better controlled temperature and humidity through the automation of greenhouses.
In contrast, traditional farmers tackled the same tasks manually and on their own.
Rural digitalization in China
The “man versus machine” competition shows that traditional agribusiness has tremendous opportunities for digital transformation – the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) for agriculture.
With nearly 10 billion people living on Earth by 2050 and about 3 billion more mouths to feed than in 2010, the need for progress is imperative. This problem is highlighted by the coronavirus pandemic, which has put the global food system under severe stress by disrupting regular supply chains.
In China, agriculture is characterized by small farms and low digitalization, making it difficult to achieve standardization and economies of scale. In addition, the industry also faces an aging and shrinking workforce in agriculture. This explains the Chinese government’s plans to pilot the digital village in early 2020.
During the mobile internet boom of the past decade, Chinese farmers have quickly moved to digital lifestyles using mobile payments and online video entertainment. In some areas, rural residents are more connected to the Internet than in large cities. Now the use of advanced digital technologies in agriculture is a new frontier.
Besides artificial intelligence and big data, blockchain is another popular technology for smart agriculture in China, especially related to food safety.
Chinese consumers have encountered watermelons exploding from misuse of a chemical growth accelerator; “Mutton” made from rat meat; and cooking oil, processed from waste oil collected from restaurant fryers, grease traps, or even sewers (known as “gutter oil”).
Blockchain can be used to collect data on the origin, safety, and authenticity of food products, and to provide real-time traceability across the entire supply chain.
For example, the blockchain-based GoGo Chicken poultry monitoring technology was developed by a subsidiary of Chinese online insurer ZhongAn to chronicle the origin of chickens to prove whether they are organic or not.
According to the company, each chicken wears a tracking device on its leg that automatically uploads its real-time progress along the supply chain to a blockchain database.
Sensors monitor temperature, humidity and other aspects of the chick’s environment, while algorithms assess bird health through video analysis.
More recently, during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, small and medium-sized Chinese companies, many of which also had little or no online presence, switched to video streaming to boost sales at a time when consumer habits are changing faster than ever.
Interestingly, selling local produce through live e-commerce channels is gaining momentum in rural markets. This is in part because new media platforms have many easy-to-use video tools, which means farmers can conveniently add video to their marketing.
Digital Villages for the Global Village
As agriculture digitizes, new pockets of value from the oldest industry are likely to open up. We must continue to bring more digital tools such as AI, big data, blockchain and IoT to agricultural entrepreneurs, especially given the irreversible trend towards a decrease in the number of people employed in this work.
Much of this will not be able to happen until rural areas are equipped with high-speed broadband, but there are still about 3 billion people around the world, mostly in rural areas, without basic Internet connectivity.
In addition, even in areas where Internet connectivity is already available, farmers are reluctant to implement digital tools as their impact is insufficiently proven. This is why the strawberry competition is so important.
Digitizing agriculture will require huge government commitments. In rural China, future Internet penetration will require significant investment in network infrastructure in remote areas, for which the Digital Village Initiative is providing financial and organizational support.
Digital Villages are the future of agriculture in China and the world. The pilot will provide a valuable guide to how other countries can bridge the digital divide in rural areas.
In December 2020, UN FAO collaborated with Zhejiang University to release the first Digital Agriculture Flagship Report, which shared the current state of rural e-commerce in China for a guide to global emerging markets.
While governments on every continent are focused on digitally transforming their rural economies, farmers themselves are busy creating the new productivity that the pandemic-stricken global economy needs.