Agtech, the new farming tool to boost food security

PAUL TENG Today Online 6 Jul 17;

Modern farming depends on technology such as seed, fertiliser, pesticides, water, and machinery. These have formed the basis of the world’s food production systems for staples.

However, it has become increasingly clear to scientists, policymakers and development agencies that physical inputs alone did not guarantee that farmers can make best use of these inputs. Knowledge is required to make farms productive, farming practices efficient, and farm productivity more targeted.

At the same time, information-communication technology (ICT) has also increasingly affected the farming community. ICT is increasingly recognised as the means to capture and share knowledge and in the process, improve the efficiency of using production inputs.

For farming, a major challenge has been how to empower all farmers with the knowledge to use inputs effectively.

Agricultural technology (agtech), together with new digital knowledge capture techniques and new financial technology (fintech) groups, is fast changing farming by creating a new knowledge intensive agriculture. And this has implications for Singapore, which wants to boost the efficiency of farm use and improve its food security.

Smallholder farmers remain the foundation for Asia’s food security. These small farmers were responsible for using the first set of “disruptive innovations” in the 1960s, such as high- yielding crop seeds, fertiliser and pesticides to significantly increase food supplies.

However, the large, disparate smallholder population in Asia is geographically spread out and farmers work in diverse farming situations.

Each farmer in effect practises farming in his own way based on knowledge either newly learnt or inherited. So to get all farmers to equally manage well the use of the technical inputs available to them has been one of the biggest challenges in Asia — until the advent of ICT tools.

A recent report on The Future of Food and Agriculture by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) highlighted the urgent task of assuring that the world can meet the 50 per cent increase in demand for food by 2050. So it is all the more important not only to ensure smallholders have access to farming inputs, but also that they know how to use the inputs effectively.

PROMOTING USE OF AGTECH IN SINGAPORE

A new impetus for knowledge-intensive agriculture is the increase in myriad tools to practise “data-enabled agriculture” — environment sensors, mobile computing, satellites and imaging, drones, wireless communication and even genetics.

The growth of knowledge in digital form, and the increasing capacity of small farmers to access digital information, provide opportunities not possible before to share timely information on farming environments and the required management knowledge.

This democratises the sharing of knowledge. It also has the added attraction of luring millennials and other new entrants into agriculture at a time when almost all countries are faced with the twin problems of an ageing and declining farming population.

This matter is equally important in small city-states like Singapore as in other large agricultural countries.

Two new words, “agtech” and “fintech” have crept into the discourse on modern farming. But are these “old wine in new bottles” or are they truly “new wine in new bottles”?

The growth in knowledge-intensive agriculture offers opportunities for new technologies, new physical inputs and new financial mechanisms to ensure these become socialised into the farming sector.

Agtech collectively means the individual technologies or a combination of technologies related to farm equipment, weather, seed optimisation, fertiliser and crop inputs, irrigation, remote sensing (including drones), farm management, and agricultural big data.

Agtech has gained widespread attention and considerable investment, with one pioneering company, AgFunder, estimating that in 2014 and 2015 alone, investments totalled US$7 billion (S$9.7 billion).

Urban farming is one sub-sector that has seen some “new wine” in the form of indoor farms using fully integrated technology for growing vegetables in controlled environments of artificial light, temperature, carbon dioxide, water and fertiliser.

Korea and Japan together have over 100 indoor high-tech farms. South Korea even has a government agency to provide oversight and promote agtech.

In Singapore, Panasonic’s indoor controlled environment vegetable farm grows about 40 different types of vegetables and has delivered such high-tech vegetables to supermarkets.

Another start-up, Archisen, is prototyping a different kind of indoor controlled environment farm using an Internet of Things approach and eventually aims to connect multiple such farms with cloud technology.

There are other commercial urban vegetable farms, each showing its unique use of engineering technology.

To incentivise investors in modern agtech farms, enablers would include longer or lower-cost space leases, one-stop approvals to farm in urban space, government start-up funds, and more platforms for sourcing private financing.

Singapore can promote more use of modern agtech by showcasing or piloting available agtech in partnership with local or overseas groups such as “AgFunder”.

But ultimately, adoption will depend on the enabling environment as farming enterprises need to show an adequate return on investment over an assured period.

CONNECTING THE DOTS

Fintech companies now use new technology to provide financial services for innovations in farming, either bypassing or complementing traditional financial and technology players such as development banks and multinational companies as the main suppliers of physical technologies and knowledge to small farmers.

But it is the synergy of agtech and fintech that is causing great excitement for knowledge-intensive agriculture.

Countries with active financial centres coupled with proper governance such as intellectual property protection for new technology, will find that the changed landscape provides many opportunities to create new avenues of economic growth.

An example is Singapore, which has a “first mover” advantage in urban farming technology, and has already attracted attention from investors from other parts of Asia.

Singapore, with many centres of expertise in ICT, and being home to many financial institutions, has potential to develop into a major agtech-fintech player to generate new technology-based farming applications for small-farmer knowledge-intensive agriculture in both urban and rural situations.

Historically, farming has seen many disruptive innovations, such as hybrid corn in the 1920s, biotech crops in 1996, and now digital agricultural technologies and genome-edited crops and animals in the 2010s.

As experts at an Asian Development Bank workshop last month noted, knowledge-intensive agriculture has the potential to become the latest and most impactful game changer because it “connects the dots” to link technology, knowledge, the farmer and the financier.

The FAO report on the future of food and agriculture also proposed that new investments and new technologies are needed to meet the 50 per cent increase in food demand by 2050, and doing so will require US$ 265 million in investment a year.

It is unlikely that all this investment will be met by governments, pointing further to an important complementary role of fintech companies.

New platforms for connecting technology developers with investors are already starting to make their presence felt in Singapore.

Government support could help in establishing Singapore as a key player in the agtech-fintech space for agriculture.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Paul Teng is Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He formerly held leadership positions at The WorldFish Centre, The International Rice Research Institute and Monsanto Company. This is adapted from another piece in RSIS Commentary and part of a series on the upcoming World Agricultural Forum (WAF) on July 6-7 organised jointly by RSIS.

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