In May 2020, with technical support from the UN’s FAO, the Agricultural University of China and Chinese e-commerce platform Pinduoduo held a “smart farming competition”. Three teams of top strawberry growers – the Traditional team – and four teams of AI science experts – the Technology team – participated in a strawberry growing competition in Yunnan province, China, which is considered the Agricultural version of the historic match between a human Go player and Google’s AI DeepMind.
Initially, the Traditional teams were expected to draw best practices from their collective farming and farming experience. And they did – for a while. They led in efficient manufacturing for several months before the Technology teams slowly caught up, using internet-enabled devices (like smart sensors), data analytics, and complete greenhouse automation. all digital.
The final winner is announced in December 2020. The four Tech teams produced an average of 6.86 kg of strawberries, or 196% more than the 2.32 kg average for the three traditional growing teams. Furthermore, technologists also outperform farmers in terms of an average return on investment of 75.5%, according to the contest organizers.
So, what is the secret that technology can beat humans when it comes to growing strawberries? The answer seems to be more accurate data analysis and application. The Technology team used knowledge graph technology to collect historical data of cultivation and image recognition of strawberries. This is then combined with water, fertilizer and greenhouse climate models to create a smart decision strategy. As a result, they have more precise control over water and nutrient usage, and they also better control temperature and humidity through greenhouse automation.
In contrast, traditional farmers handle similar tasks with their hands and experience.
This strawberry contest between man and machine illustrates that traditional agriculture has huge room for a digital transformation – the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) for agriculture. With nearly 10 billion people predicted to live on Earth by 2050, about 3 billion more mouths than in 2010, the need to make progress is becoming urgent. The challenge is highlighted by the coronavirus pandemic, which has put the global food system under severe strain, disrupting regular supply chains.
In China, the agricultural sector is characterized by small farms and low digitalisation, making it difficult to achieve standardization and economies of scale. Moreover, the industry also faces the problem of an aging and declining agricultural workforce. That explains the Chinese government’s plan to pilot a “digital village” in early 2020.
During the mobile internet boom of the last decade, Chinese farmers quickly adopted a digital lifestyle, using mobile payments and online video entertainment. In some areas, the level of villagers connected to the internet is greater than in large cities. Now, the application of advanced digital technologies in agriculture is the new frontier.
In addition to AI and big data, blockchain is another popular technology for smart agriculture in China – especially in regards to food safety. Chinese consumers have encountered watermelons that explode due to overuse of growth accelerators; “Mutton” made from rat meat; and cooking oil is recycled from waste oil obtained from restaurant fryers, grease traps or even drains (known as “gutter oil”). Blockchain can be used to collect data on the origin, safety, and authenticity of food, and provide real-time traceability throughout the supply chain.
For example, GoGo Chicken, a blockchain-based poultry monitoring technology, was developed by a subsidiary of Chinese online insurance company ZhongAn to record the provenance of chickens to prove they are authentic. organic chicken (or not). According to the company, each chicken wears a tracking device on its legs that automatically uploads their real-time progress through the supply chain to a blockchain database. Sensors monitor temperature, humidity and other aspects of the chicken’s environment, while algorithms assess the bird’s health using video analytics.
Most recently, during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, China’s small and medium-sized companies (or SMEs) – including many with little or no previous online presence – have flocked to into video streaming to drive sales at a time when consumer habits are changing faster than ever. Interestingly, the sale of local products through live streaming on e-commerce channels is gaining momentum in rural markets. This is partly because new media platforms have a plethora of easy-to-use video tools, which means farmers can conveniently add video to their marketing.
As agriculture digitizes, it is likely to add new pockets of value from the oldest industry. We must continue to bring more digital tools, such as AI, big data, blockchain and IoT, to the entrepreneurs working in the agricultural sector, especially considering the irreversible trend Contrast of fewer and fewer people involved in this work.
Much of this is unlikely until rural areas are equipped with high-speed broadband networks, but there are still some 3 billion people worldwide – mostly in rural areas – without access to the internet. Basic internet connection. Furthermore, even in areas with internet connectivity, farmers are slow to deploy digital tools because their impact has not been fully demonstrated. That’s why the bridesmaid contest is so important.
Digitalizing agriculture will require major government commitments. In rural China, future internet penetration will involve substantial investments in network infrastructure in remote areas, where the “digital village” initiative provides financial and organizational support.
The “Digital Village” is the future of agriculture in China – and the world. The pilot version will be a valuable reference point on how other countries can bridge the digital divide in rural areas.
In December 2020, UN FAO jointly released the first “Digital Agriculture Leading Report” with Zhejiang University, which shares the current development status of China’s rural e-commerce. Countries for global emerging markets for reference.
While governments across continents focus on the digital transformation of their rural economies, it is farmers who are busy creating the new productivity that the global economy is making. going through a much-needed pandemic.

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