Farming For The Future

COVID-19 has disrupted food supply chains across the globe, but agricultural technology is keeping Asia’s farming industry fertile through revolutionary apps, automated robots and more.

AsianScientist (Apr. 1, 2022) – When served as a delicacy, crickets look like a much less intimidating snack than you might imagine. Roasted, covered in flavors, and missing most of their six legs and wings, the insects closely resemble a grain or a nut as opposed to anything that once crawled or flew.

To some, the crickets even taste good, with a satisfying crunch and a clean, mellow nuttiness. What’s more, they’re healthy: research indicates that crickets contain more iron and protein per weight than beef, while requiring less land and resources to farm.

These are just some of the reasons behind the rising popularity of insects as an alternative protein source. But at S$6.42 for a 25-gram packet, they’re not exactly cheap. Similarly, while plant-based proteins are touted as sustainable solutions to farmed meat, their high price and limited availability make them more of a luxurious treat than a true replacement.

To achieve food security through a more feasible solution, it’s smart to go back to basics: transforming agriculture through technology, or agritech. Despite the futuristic name, agritech is nothing new. For as long as human civilizations have grown crops for food, they’ve used technology to make plants more nutritious and bountiful—from simple cross-breeding to genetic modification.

In our modern age, agritech incorporates innovations like artificial intelligence (AI), drone technology, automation and more with traditional methods. For a glimpse into the future of farming, we look at the diversity of agritech innovations in Asia, a continent rich in both agriculture and scientific advance.

Taking farms indoors and upwards

When we look at fresh produce at the supermarket, we don’t often think about where that head of broccoli or bunch of spinach came from. But the COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to reconsider their provenance.

As the world discovered during the pandemic, countries that cannot produce their own food and rely on imports are vulnerable to supply chain disruptions. Unfortunately, agriculture, an endeavor that traditionally requires sprawling areas of open farmland, is a challenge for highly urban, land-scarce countries.

The solution? Indoor vertical farms. By bringing farms into buildings and making use of vertical space to grow crops, indoor farms maximize the agricultural potential of countries with limited land for food production.

Singapore is already an indoor-farm fan, currently depending almost entirely on food imports and producing only 10 percent of food locally. To increase its food production to 30 percent by 2030, Singapore counts indoor farming as a key strategy. Some of these farms like Sustenir Agriculture and Artisan Green have already put vertical farming into practice, producing fresh herbs and salad leaves from buildings within the city.

Other startups like Indoor Farm Factory Innovation focus on developing technologies and systems to refine the indoor farming process. Their technologies include customized LED lighting for cultivating a range of crops; optimized water treatment to improve crop yield and quality; environmental monitoring; as well as futuristic robotic systems and AI automation that simplify farming processes.

A smarter way to grow greens

Though indoor vertical farms may help repurpose space for agriculture, all farms still need people power. This means that besides land availability, agricultural output in smaller countries can also be limited by a small labor force. To tackle this problem, Taiwan-based company New Garden utilizes a proprietary ecosystem combining AI technology with Internet of Things (IoT) hardware to create an advanced agriculture tool that minimizes dependence on a human workforce.

New Garden’s offering is the Smart AI Gardener, a self-sustained plant container that comes equipped with smart lighting, a watering system and multiple connected sensors. It collects and processes plant data in real-time to intelligently grow crops by itself—no humans needed.

In Malaysia, IBM similarly aims to apply a combined AI and IoT approach for data gathering and analysis, but on a larger scale. The Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture works by creating a comprehensive record of field data gathered through satellites and IoT sensors embedded in the farm machinery.

The data is then analyzed through AI and machine learning algorithms that automatically yield insights and recommendations to guide decision-making on the farm. By deploying the platform, IBM aims to herald an era of smart agriculture and precision farming that promises more profitable and efficient farms.

Yi-Di Ng is a writer with a background in genetics research and a passion for stories, writing and communicating ideas. She is currently pursuing her Masters degree in English Literature.

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