Asia’s new agricultural revolution: planting a high-tech future

Pham Thi Huong went from the back-breaking job of coaxing espresso out of Vietnam’s central highlands to an inconceivable one: rising strawberries on rocks.

Huong and her husband threw within the shovel on their days of toil on the mercy of risky commodity costs in 2019 and joined vertical agriculture firm Orlar. Now they work collectively at a greenhouse the place related white pillars line up like library stacks, every one holding rock on high of rock.

The rocks are handled with a patented mixture of microbes to maintain flowers. Romaine lettuce, basil, bok choy and flowers burst from the stones.

“I used to be so shocked, seeing this for the primary time,” Huong mentioned over a patchy line from her mountainous farm city.

“I assumed, with expertise like this, we are able to develop extra,” Huong added, noting an additional bonus: using far fewer chemical substances than in conventional agriculture.

Huong’s transfer is a part of an increasing agricultural revolution in Asia that goals to feed a ballooning inhabitants in opposition to a backdrop of formidable issues. The intimidating checklist contains meals inflation, local weather change, accessibility points, provide chain disruptions, city migration, ageing societies and extreme starvation.

Huong’s employer, Orlar, is cagey concerning the specifics of its expertise however claims it minimises the necessity for chemical substances, power, water and land. The beginning-up’s job is one confronted by companies and farmers throughout a world the place the inhabitants is increasing however sources should not. To feed an more and more hungry planet, Orlar and different new farming revolutionaries should produce extra with much less.

Meals costs have shot up throughout Asia, hitting their highest ranges since 2011. Farmers face droughts and ice storms, rising prices of fertiliser and gas, pandemic-related labour shortages, and provide chain disruptions exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Strawberries at Orlar’s vertical farm
Strawberries develop out of rocks at Orlar’s vertical farm in Da Lat in Vietnam’s central highlands © courtesy of Orlar

Costs are anticipated to maintain rising. In the meantime, Asia’s inhabitants is projected to surge by 700mn to five.3bn in 2050. Final 12 months, greater than 1.1bn folks lacked entry to ample meals on this area alone.

The billion-dollar query now’s: how will the world’s most populous land mass feed itself within the a long time to return?

Throughout the area, corporations are approaching this job by harnessing the ability of expertise.

Some are disrupting 1000’s of years of conventional soil agriculture and breaking new floor, rising the meals of our future on rocks, hydrogel sheets, Petri dishes and vertical racks. Others deliver machine studying to agtech.

In Japan, cherry-red robotic tractors function new beasts of burden. In China, pigs are monitored by roaming cameras, and tomatoes are harvested by bots.

This text is from Nikkei Asia, a world publication with a uniquely Asian perspective on politics, the financial system, enterprise and worldwide affairs. Our personal correspondents and out of doors commentators from around the globe share their views on Asia, whereas our Asia300 part supplies in-depth protection of 300 of the largest and fastest-growing listed corporations from 11 economies exterior Japan.

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From Philippine rice to Vietnamese shrimp, selective breeding is being utilized to extend yields. Local weather is being managed in glasshouses, vertical farms and fish tanks.

Some expertise, from monitoring soil well being to following a mango’s provide chain journey, is getting cheaper, says Patricia Sosrodjojo, associate at Seedstars Worldwide Ventures, an early-stage investor in rising markets.

However Sosrodjojo additionally warned that the “compounding” world problems with the previous two years illustrate the necessity for extra innovation.

“Individuals . . . realised there may be this equipment that will get meals to the market. After which issues like Covid and the provision chain, [problems] that would occur, did occur,” she mentioned in an interview with Nikkei Asia. “It additionally serves as a wake-up name that these threats are actual.”

Many corporations are investing in analysis to develop options for issues which can be anticipated to spiral within the years to return. “Higher put together the cart now, then connect the horse later,” mentioned Jauhar Ali of the Worldwide Rice Analysis Institute (IRRI), which has been getting ready for meals shortages by genetically modifying rice to optimise diet and yield.

The agtech revolution might hardly be extra urgent. Inhabitants progress is up however stockpiles are down, with reserves of staples shrinking for 4 straight years till only recently, based on the Worldwide Grains Council.

Shares of wheat, barley, maize, soyabeans and rice will drop to an eight-year low of 583mn metric tons in 2023, based on the intergovernmental organisation.

A trifecta of issues has stoked meals inflation: Covid, battle and local weather. Russia’s struggle in Ukraine has pushed up prices, from animal feed to fertiliser. This has compounded the meals insecurity unleashed by export bans, hoarding and provide chain bedlam throughout the pandemic. World warming threatens to accentuate the harm to crops attributable to drought, floods, typhoons and pests.

Agtech has the potential to be an integral a part of an ecosystem of innovation that would imply fewer people will go hungry. However its acolytes might want to overcome essential impediments, resembling excessive funding prices and power shortage, whether it is to dwell as much as its existential guarantees.

Yanmar’s autonomous tractors plow a field in eastern Japan
Yanmar’s autonomous tractors plough a discipline in japanese Japan © courtesy of Yanmar

In 2022 BC, farmers cultivated vegetation that suited their location. One might say the local weather decided the crop.

In 2022 AD, with farm tech, the crop determines the local weather.

Indoor farms are sheltered from rain, daylight and warmth. That provides people what our ancestors may need seen as divine management over water ranges, gentle and temperatures used to nourish the crops of their selecting.

Chinese language firm Kaisheng Haofeng runs one of many planet’s greatest greenhouses, within the nation with essentially the most mouths to feed. It spreads throughout the world of 30 soccer pitches in rural Shandong province, the place tomatoes are the star of the present.

The corporate deploys an arsenal of Dutch machines that automate the fruit’s weight-reduction plan of water and fertiliser, calibrate gentle and air flow, and kill micro organism with ultraviolet rays. Fashionable synthetic microclimates allow horticulture year-round throughout the huge panorama of the nation of 1.4bn folks.

A researcher with the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines clips samples of a hybrid variety of African rice
A researcher with the Worldwide Rice Analysis Institute within the Philippines clips samples of a hybrid number of African rice © courtesy of Worldwide Rice Analysis Institute

Kaisheng’s good tech has raised yields sixfold.

Previous-school greenhouses, against this, don’t “face up to harsh environments” too nicely, deputy common supervisor Li Ju-hai mentioned, including that they can’t produce the meals high quality that customers demand.

“My nation is ushering in a brand new period of enhanced comprehension of consumption,” Li mentioned.

That can be the thought with Japan’s Mebiol, which claims it might probably develop meals in barren locations. Former Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi as soon as took its flagship expertise to house, and succeeded in rising herbs in zero gravity.

Mebiol’s invention seems like furry grass sprouting from an enormous sheet of plastic wrap. It’s a mixture of vitamins and water in a hydrogel, which is then flattened into sheets fertile sufficient to maintain vegetation.

As with Orlar’s rocks in Vietnam, cherry tomatoes and mizuna leaves spring from the see-through movie, utilizing no soil and minimal water.

The worldwide agtech market will reap $22.5bn in income by 2025, up from $9bn in 2020, based on UK-based Juniper Analysis.

Tomatoes grow in a greenhouse in Kunming, Yunan province, China
Tomatoes develop in a greenhouse in Kunming, Yunan province, China © courtesy of Ridder

The numbers are attracting funding in agtech, which reached document highs final 12 months as enterprise capitalists positioned practically $12.2bn in 632 offers, based on worldwide commerce affiliation CropLife. Within the first quarter of this 12 months alone, traders have splashed 224 offers with $3.9bn.

“Agtech 1.0 focused on areas like genetics, pesticides and fertilisation,” mentioned Sanjeev Krishnan, founder and managing director at S2G Ventures, which invests in meals and agriculture.

“Agtech 2.0 focuses far more on digitisation, information science and different farming, which has helped reply to Covid and the problems it precipitated with provide disruptions and labour pressure entry,” Krishnan added.

“One thing like digitalisation has turn into essential as a result of folks want provide chain visibility, they need to know crop yield,” Krishnan mentioned.

Agtech is permitting farming to maneuver off scarce land, into buildings and on to rooftops.

That is significantly useful in wealthy however densely populated nations like Singapore, which is about half the dimensions of London and has much less room for conventional agriculture.

Singapore, which imports 90 per cent of its meals, sees city farming as a strategy to produce extra at dwelling and bolster provide safety. It has designated greater than 10 rooftops to develop greater than 2,000 tons of greens yearly.

ComCrop, one of many city-state’s first rooftop farms, has been churning out mint and lettuce utilizing hydroponics since 2011. It requires neither pesticides nor soil on this tiny island nation of 724 sq. kilometres.

Tomatoes grow in a Kaisheng Haofeng greenhouse in Shandong province, China
Tomatoes develop in a Kaisheng Haofeng greenhouse in Shandong province, China © courtesy of Ridder

The federal government goals to develop 30 per cent of the island’s dietary wants by 2030. The Singapore Meals Company has earmarked greater than $40mn to create an agriculture trade that’s resilient to local weather and might use sources effectively.

The company helps seafood companies like Blue Ocean Aquaculture Know-how, which rears jade perch and pink tilapia in oxygen-rich tanks at a manufacturing unit.

Shrimp farmers from Thailand to Vietnam are taking an identical strategy, shifting their crustaceans from outside ponds to indoor tanks.

The managed atmosphere protects in opposition to plankton blooms and water air pollution.

Local weather management might guard farms from mercurial climate — however it might probably come at a heavy value to the broader biosphere.

Sceptics say not each change in agriculture is progress. For indoor farms, a giant drawback is the “phenomenal” quantity of power consumed, acknowledges Orlar founder Lyndal Hugo. She argues that the rocks her firm use act like thermal batteries, storing warmth and decreasing the necessity for exterior energy.

Mizuna leaves grow without soil on a thin hydrogel film developed by Mebiol
Mizuna leaves develop with out soil on a skinny hydrogel movie developed by Mebiol © courtesy of Mebiol

However vertical farms could be notoriously electricity-intensive. In a single stark instance, strawberries drained 3,000 per cent extra energy on a Russian vertical farm than a Chilean typical one, students Paul Teng and Steve Kim wrote in an evaluation for Singapore’s Nanyang Technological College weblog final 12 months.

“Except we take away power from the system, we’re by no means going to struggle local weather change, we’re by no means going to struggle meals insecurity,” mentioned Hugo, who’s licensing her invention to companions in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand.

As Asia’s center class expands, the area is predicted to account for half the worldwide progress in poultry and beef consumption, and three-quarters of seafood demand by 2030, based on a report by the Asian Growth Financial institution. By then, greater than 60 per cent of cereal demand within the creating world will come from south and east Asia, the report mentioned.

To maintain tempo, meals manufacturing must enhance 60 to 70 per cent in contrast with a decade in the past, the ADB analysis confirmed.

And prices at this time are already setting information. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, each huge exporters of wheat and maize, drove previously-rising costs of staples together with vegetable oils and cereals to document highs this 12 months, based on the UN Meals and Agriculture Group’s annual Meals Value Index.

The index, which tracks month-to-month value adjustments in a basket of generally traded meals commodities, has climbed 23 per cent up to now 12 months alone, hovering round an all-time excessive reached in March.

Brazilian spinach grows on the Tampines Hub rooftop farm in Singapore
Brazilian spinach grows on the Tampines Hub rooftop farm in Singapore © Dylan Loh

That has added to different up to date obstacles to sourcing meals. These embody Covid-addled provide chains additional strained by China’s pandemic lockdowns; excessive climate occasions worsened by local weather change; and ageing and urbanising societies through which individuals are much less prone to work the fields.

That is an pressing drawback in Japan, the place 29 per cent of individuals are 65 or older, the best price on the planet. The archipelago had 1.74mn farmer households in 2020, down 44 per cent from 2000, mentioned the ministry of agriculture, forestry and fisheries.

The scarcity of human palms suggests one potential reply: introduce extra mechanical ones.

Japanese firm Yanmar Agribusiness has developed a fleet of self-driving tractors that deliver precision to ploughing and ridging. Their human overlords use tablets to map deliberate routes for the automobiles, which cease when their sensors detect folks or objects close by.

That is an instance of the massive influence that info and communication expertise (ICT) can have on time-honoured farming practices, mentioned Yanmar’s government engineering officer Shigemi Hidaka. “Our agricultural trade must turn into a wise trade by utilising applied sciences like ICT and information linkage,” he mentioned.

Indoor fish farming at Blue Ocean Aquaculture Technology’s factory in Singapore
Indoor fish farming at Blue Ocean Aquaculture Know-how’s manufacturing unit in Singapore © courtesy of Singapore Meals Company

A thousand miles west, China’s Twenty first-century farm palms embody the corporate Sananbio’s conveyor system that automates seeding and transplanting. Kaisheng Haofeng, in the meantime, plans to populate its greenhouses with robots for harvesting and packaging in 2023.

And within the nation with the world’s greatest urge for food for pork, Beijing-based Nxin is creating machine studying to observe pigs. Voice recognition, for instance, can decide if a sow is crushing a piglet. Roving hog cameras enhance output by utilizing software program to evaluate weight, being pregnant and indicators of illness.

Elsewhere in Asia units do what people can not, or increase what they will. Drones in India blast pesticides at locusts. Sensors acquire discipline information all throughout the continent, from moisture in soil to salinity in rice paddies.

Different strategies are being deployed to enhance yield and high quality of rice, Asia’s water-intensive staple carbohydrate. Nepal and the Philippines are investing tens of millions of {dollars} in hybrid rice, which scientists alter for various traits, like illness and drought resistance. Selective breeding can be utilized in animals, resembling milk cows in Bangladesh.

Genetic modification of rice is especially helpful in saving water. A kilogramme of rice wants wherever between 3,000 and 5,000 litres of water, in comparison with 900 litres for a kilogramme of wheat and 500 litres for a similar weight in potatoes.

Some hybrid rice varieties require as much as 30 per cent much less water.

Lowering water use is essential in huge swaths of south and east Asia, the place humanity is heading in direction of a water disaster due to shrinking glaciers, depleted groundwater and extreme droughts.

The Philippines-based Worldwide Rice Analysis Institute mentioned Manila was the primary authorities to approve its Golden Rice, a pressure loaded with nutritional vitamins to nourish extra folks for much less. Ali, the institute’s head of hybrid rice tech analysis, mentioned hurdles included the years of growth wanted, and a public cautious of genetic modification. Filipino farmers against Golden Rice mentioned the modified plant would “poison our lands” and enhance reliance on pesticides and herbicides.

Elsewhere, expertise is getting used to change the crop fields themselves. India and Thailand, the world’s greatest rice exporters, zap lasers at dry land to measure bumps that should be flattened. This type of levelling cuts water and fertiliser use by spreading them out evenly, elevating rice harvests by 7 to 10 per cent, based on German support company GIZ.

Supporters of the brand new agricultural revolution say they urgently want extra funding — and efforts to deliver down prices. For instance, Yanmar acknowledges that the $72,000-plus price ticket on its autonomous tractor places it out of attain of smallholders. The Worldwide Rice Analysis Institute has an annual price range of practically $62mn, and Ali says that elevating the hybrid rice programme’s price range by even $1mn would reap multiples of that quantity.

Regardless of all its potential, agtech is in its infancy. And nations with youthful populations will take longer to scale to digital operations as they reap their “demographic dividend”. India, for instance, will add one other 183mn folks to the working age group of 15-64 years over the subsequent three a long time, based on UN information.

International Rice Research Institute conducts an optimization trial for drought and salinity
The Worldwide Rice Analysis Institute conducts an optimisation trial for drought and salinity © courtesy of Worldwide Rice Analysis Institute

To succeed, the brand new agricultural revolution might want to present that its improvements can reinvent millennia-old classical farming to fulfill the pressing wants of an age of meals disaster in a cost-efficient method.

Again in Vietnam, Orlar’s efforts to make delicate fruits spring from rocks are an indication of the possibly transformative high quality of the brand new agricultural revolution. Its founder Hugo places the equation starkly: “It’s solely a legitimate expertise if it improves folks’s lives.”

A model of this text was first revealed by Nikkei Asia on July 15 ©2022 Nikkei Inc. All rights reserved.