tech

Japan's 'agri-tech' farming revolution

8 Comments
By Allan Croft

Japan's high-tech agricultural businesses are to gather at the Agri World trade fair held in Tokyo this week (Oct 12-14) to showcase the industries next generation of technologies such as plant factories, robotic automation and IT systems, claimed as advancing the "fourth industrial revolution" into the sector.

Business analysts forecast the "agri-tech" market is primed for extensive growth internationally over the decades ahead. As global population is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, food needs would require a doubling of agricultural production, state U.N. World Food Programme experts.

Offering technological solutions, "agri-tech" businesses are marketing a wide variety of products and services for meeting industry demands, to generally increase productivity, lower costs, use less resources such as energy, water and pesticides, and improve produce quality and availability.

There is also a strong demand for labor saving and assistive agricultural equipment driven by a different demographic trend, that of ageing agricultural farmers, whereby according to U.N. figures, in developed countries the average age is 60, and where in Japan it has risen to 67.

Overall Japan has a shrinking agricultural sector, demonstrated by government data showing the number of full-time farmers at 1.7 million in 2014, declining from 2.2 million a decade earlier. Workforce and skills shortages are compounded by the lack of young people becoming farmers. Also, due to the increasing rate of farmers retiring, the overall amount of uncultivated farmland within Japan has doubled over the past two decades, increasing to 420,000 hectares in 2015.

Japan's reliance on food imports is a further factor of concern, currently estimated at 60%, prompting recent government targets for boosting domestic production to 55% by 2050. Agricultural production at present is valued at around 1 trillion yen of which the government aims to increase to 10 trillion yen by 2020, raising food self-sufficiency as a major agricultural policy.

Another government initiative is 4 billion yen budgeted over the year through March for promoting farming automation technology in order to raise crop yields and make-up for workforce deficits. Specifically, the financial subsidy supports the development of 20 robot types, such as devices which separate over-ripe fruits during harvesting, to enable large reductions in manual farm labor.

As physical activities bring more difficulties for a greater number of aging farmers, technological innovations to assist with and replace workers performing agricultural tasks is an urgent priority.

Japanese tech companies are heavily investing in agricultural technology as a big opportunity for profits in both domestic and global markets such as India and the APAC countries, attracting small scale start-ups to big corporations such as Mitsubishi, Fujitsu, and Panasonic, to name but a few.

There is also a trend for farmland in Japan to be cultivated by "business farmers" and "agribusiness," at around 50% today, leading to 80% by 2025, according to government estimates.

As an indicator of growth potential in the "agri-tech" sector, the global market for agricultural robots is projected to reach $73.9 billion by 2024, up from $3 billion in 2015, predicted by Tractica, a market intelligence firm. Driverless tractors are trended to gain the highest revenue at $30.7 billion by 2024, with agricultural drones comprising the most amount of units shipped.

The applications of farming technologies are wide ranging and often interconnect. A typical farm scenario could involve a driverless tractor in a rice paddy field utilising a global positioning system, both synchronised to automate cultivation and fertilization after monitoring the soil conditions.

For work that is harder to be automated, wearable robotics put on like a backpack have been designed to assist harvesting and carrying produce, more so for elderly and female farmers.

As well as automating work, high-tech farming technologies provide accurate information which farmers can use to make decisions managing crops. For example, a combination of high resolution drone images, historical weather data from geo-satellites and sensors in the field would generate real-time alerts on mobile devices to inform farmers when to reduce a mandarin orchards water supply, so the trees absorb less water from the soil, therefore increasing sugar levels of the fruits.

The valuable experience and techniques of veteran farmers could also be more accessible to newer farmers via the web, such as learning resources about harvesting times with databases and photos.

Many news items about "agri-tech" businesses have featured in both the Japanese and international media, with reports of indoor "vertical farms" and automated greenhouses gaining the most coverage. There is often a focus on robotic automation, also the use of IT systems and sensors to measure and control growing processes, evidently enhancing work efficiencies, crop yields and produce quality.

For example, GRA Inc is a medium-size Japanese business with an automated indoor greenhouse facility producing strawberries, providing a reliable quality and increased supply all year round.

The company joins conventional farming expertise and technological innovation, employing local farmers as advisors and management, founded by a former IT administrator turned agriculturalist.

Based in Miyagi Prefecture, the business started a few months after the Tōhoku disaster. In an area famous for its strawberries, thousands of greenhouses were destroyed and damaged ensuing huge losses for farmers. The business has therefore helped to modernise and revitalise regional trade.

Such stories show the real potential for young tech-savvy farmers to work alongside older, more experienced farmers, toward overcoming the challenges confronting Japan's agricultural industry.

Allan Croft is a freelance writer focusing on the latest science, tech and green news in Japan and Asia.

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8 Comments
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It is impressive to see the family around Tokyo and its periphery are being trying to utilise even a small piece of land to grow various ornamental as well as fruits and vegetable plants. However, keeping animals except cats and dogs rearing other animals are rarely observed; though an immense opportunities exists to promote small animals like goats, rabbits and poultry birds.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Interesting time to be holding this event when the PMA is being held in the US (Produce Marketing Association) and as the US is one of the biggest markets...

My company is a leading 'agri-tech' manufacturer and does about $40 million in the US and this market share is growing rapidly.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Currently the maximum for 1 person operations in N.A. is about 1100 ha, in Japan it is about 2 ha.

In the US This figure might be relevent for grains but other crops (fruit vegetables) still rely on an army of underpaid migrant workers. At least Japanese agriculture is still providing some employment in rural areas.

There are other benefits to small holdings that go beyond economics which I have no problem paying for.

But I agree that in the end I have no choice.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Give Japan some credit. Pesticide is now spread over the paddies by drone instead of manned helicopter.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

This article is a joke for anyone who has seen the countryside and watxhed Japanese TV programs about how farmers operate. Food is sold at high prices for nearly all items, including rice. I never have seen any bargain price for food (or ridiculous ones). Selling potatoes or tomatoes as diamond value while it is so easy to grow shows indeed the gap with all other developed country. No revolution happens in Japan about prices so why expect this ones ? And who would operate agrirobots, geeks ? Japan has the robot power for sure but not that experience about food yield.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Japanese agriculture is 40 years behind. The best thing the government could do is deregulate everything.

It is interesting that the story did not mention biotechnology. Japanese farmers apply about 5 times as much active ingredient of pesticides per hectare that North America. Japanese consumers need to make up their minds, GMOs or pesticides. GMO rice holds great promise in increasing productivity and reducing the need for pesticides.

Japan has 41 tractors/100 ha VS North America with 3/100 ha. A huge productivity problem. Currently the maximum for 1 person operations in N.A. is about 1100 ha, in Japan it is about 2 ha. There are large flat areas of Japan with small inefficiently sized fields. The government could be helpful in easing restrictions to allow for field consolidation, allowing Japanese farmers to amalgamate fields, remove access roads and plow under abandoned residential land.

Subsidies from the government have made Japanese farmers complacent, they can grow 2 ha of rice and make money. They have no incentive to maximize their resources. Additionally, the culture of the farming community in Japan needs a shake up. Modern food production relies on brain power, but Japanese farmers think it relies on muscle power.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Japan's 'agri-tech' farming revolution

Hopefully we can see the death of JA, and some real consumer choice as a result. Don't hold your breath for cheaper prices, though - where has that ever happened?

5 ( +6 / -1 )

Technology to always make sure vegetables conform to JA's strict requirements for like length and shape would ensure less waste and more nutrients getting to the consumer, but then JA could just dispense with such nonsense. This would likely increase productivity by 50%. Then, at the other end, teaching the consumer not to buy perfectly good produce and throw away the nutrients by peeling or polishing or boiling and squeezing them out would also help. And this is without all the wastage between farmer and consumer. Tech solutions suit tech companies first and foremost. Education and de-regulation could suit everyone very quickly.

5 ( +6 / -1 )

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