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Food for Thought: Agricultural Evolution in the Digital Age

 

With an increase in demand for food, many traditional farms in ASEAN have started implementing the use of technology to maintain their competitive edge. This has resulted in the creation of smart farms in many parts of Southeast Asia (SEA). Smart farming refers to the use of information and communication technologies to increase quantity and quality of food while optimizing human labour. 

The agricultural sector in ASEAN plays an important role in supporting a large percentage of the working population as well as allowing countries to attain food security in the process. It is therefore important to ensure that the sector is continually advancing, with efforts to improve efficiency and sustainability within the sector.


In this post, we will discuss the technologies implemented in smart farms located in various countries of Southeast Asia (SEA). At the same time, we will explore how these innovations have helped to increase efficiency and maintain quality in the farms.

 

Improving Farming Efficiency

With an increase in the demand for food, revamping traditional farming techniques is the first step in improving efficiency. The utilisation of new technologies to complement traditional farming methods would aid farmers in taking their first step towards creating a smart farm with better efficiency. The use of drones and Internet of Things (IoT) are amongst the most common practices. With sensors in place, farms  are able to reduce their cost by optimising the usage of water and fertilizer. Smart farming initiatives are being pushed through at various levels from the government, large enterprises and small medium enterprises.  

 

As a part of Philippines’ wide-scale agricultural initiative, the Department of Agriculture Philippines uses drones to spray fertilizers and pesticides on a strawberry farm in Benguet. This has allowed farmers to cover more area on their farms as it only takes the drone a few minutes to cover one patch of area. Overall, only 10 minutes is required to cover one hectare of land which is much faster than using human labour. The task of going up and down to spray is costly and with drones, it makes the procedure faster and saves money. As a result, it led to an overall increase in efficiency in the production of crops while reducing the cost of spraying fertilizers and pesticides.

 

Sime Darby Plantation (SDP), the largest palm oil plantation company also utilizes drones to capture real time information about their plantations, beyond their labour capabilities. This allows them to minimise manpower concerns in an industry that was traditionally labour intensive. By monitoring trials, plant growth and field conditions through the use of technology, SDP is able to better manage their resources and assets, identifying any early signs of diseases and pest infestations in their crops. Through digitalisation of their data aggregation process, they have managed to save RM1 million per year on manpower, paper, and transportation fuel.

 

On a smaller scale, SMEs can also create smart farms through the use of digital tools such as IoT. Wholesaler of agricultural raw materials Nong Phat High-Tech Agriculture JSC from Vietnam has leveraged IoT-based management services to manage their water and fertiliser for their greenhouses. The application has allowed one worker to cover all the 2,100sq.m greenhouses instead of the usual eight workers. As a result, it has saved the company about 10-15% in total for water and fertiliser consumption for the greenhouses.

 

Ensuring Quality Produce

However, just improving efficiency is not enough. To ensure that the products get sold for revenue, quality is another important factor that should be taken note of. To produce high quality products, it is vital to get an optimal environment for growth. This requires the use of various innovations to regulate environmental factors such as temperature, light, etc.

Let's take a look at Thailand’s largest producer of shrimp Charoen Pokphand Foods PLC (CPF) who uses precision farming to maintain their quality. They have installed a water circulation system to ensure their prawns meet the safety standards. As a result, the waters are the ideal temperature to produce prawns, leading to a better quality of prawns. Another example would be Thai chicken producer Betagro who uses IoT to monitor environmental changes in their chicken farms. They installed IoT to control the temperature, moisture, and light in their chicken farms in a closed environment in conjunction with an automatic feeding system. Overall, this system has allowed Betagro to adjust their surroundings to create an optimal space to grow higher quality chickens.

Additionally, Vinamilk,  the largest dairy company in Vietnam, utilizes an eco-farm system  that applies 4.0 technology to monitor the health of dairy cows with electronic chips, and supply diets served by automatic feeding robots. The cows also enjoy music, massages and cool baths every day, creating a relaxing and cool living space to ensure quality and nutritious fresh milk. With higher quality of fresh milk, Vinamilk has attracted more attention and buyers.

Such tactics are not limited to livestocks, the same method of creating an optimal environment can also be applied to grow vegetables. Indoor Farm Factor Innovation (I.F.F.I) from Singapore implemented AI to monitor the growth of their vegetables in a mega high-tech indoor vegetable farm. AI is used in their environmental control system and water treatment system to create the best setting for their crops. This has resulted in longer shelf life and top-quality products.

 

The Future of Farms

Smart farms through their implementation of new innovations, can bring about increased efficiency and higher quality of food. With an increased emphasis on smart farming, ASEAN will be able to meet the increasing demand for food. Over in Thailand, US$3.3 billion was allocated to introduce and implement smart farming to 4,500 communities to boost the Thai agriculture sector. Singapore has also set aside $60 million for the Agri-Food Cluster Transformation Fund to support technological adoption in the agriculture sector.

However, there are still some gaps when it comes to the massive transformation from traditional to smart farms in ASEAN. Money and finance remains a challenge for farmers across ASEAN, especially in rural areas. This leads to farmers missing out on potential opportunities. To close this gap, ASEAN countries can cooperate and share data, promote cross regional projects as well as establish frameworks to increase smart farming adoption.

Over our next few posts, we will discuss more about how ASEAN enterprises across the agri-food value chain are improving the region’s food security through innovative technologies and continual improvements. Follow us on our LinkedIn page to keep up to date on our latest articles in this series.


By AIBP | July 5th, 2021

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