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Thursday, January 20, 2022
SINGAPORE, Dec 20 2021 (IPS) - While the COVID-19 impact has been predominantly negative, the pandemic appears to have sparked increased interest in developing agricultural technology (agtech) to improve the efficiency of food systems, from input supplies through farming and processing to delivery and retail.
During the pandemic, the international media highlighted phenomena like farmers dumping milk and feeding quality produce to cattle, vegetables rotting in fields due to lack of labour to harvest, increased food waste in urban environments, delays in supply of inputs for growing crops or feeding fish, and supermarkets with empty shelves. The pandemic has highlighted the need to produce more food locally and to use techniques which both minimize the use of labour and avoid a high carbon footprint. Governments have responded to some of these through policies and action. The private sector has responded even quicker, having detected investment opportunities to support solutions to these problems. Venture Capital funds like AgFunder and Yield Lab have set up their Asian bases in Singapore to support initiatives throughout the Asia-Pacific.
Some of the exciting new agtech developments deal with ensuring new sources of inputs for farming crops and fish. This is exemplified by waste valorization to extract valuable elements from water and biowaste that can be used to grow plants. Many new ventures use the Black Soldier Fly, a ubiquitous insect that feeds on food waste, to harvest larval protein directly or indirectly for use as feed supplements for fish and chicken. Countries like Singapore and Malaysia, which import almost all their agricultural inputs, have provided incentives to spur these activities so that they have more resilience in their supply of fertilizers and animal feed.For on-farm production, digital farming is another area which has seen much progress during the pandemic to safeguard food production. Applications of remote sensors for environmental factors such as temperature, light and water quality increased. These sensors included both stationary and mobile sensors mounted on drones. Many now utilise cloud technology to send data back to a centralized processing facility which, among the more “intelligent” sensors, further have capabilities to take action. In Indonesia, one new company in Java has implemented among several hundred shrimp farmers an “Internet of Things” (IoT) system which not only monitors the water in which the shrimps grow for any danger signs, but also the growth of the shrimps and ultimately links the farmer to a potential buyer. In Singapore, Camtech Diagnostics has created Aquafarm, a remote water management tool for aquaculture farmers, which uses wireless sensors to maintain optimal water quality for their stocks. The remote monitoring and wireless communication system allows farmers to monitor the water quality in real-time, reduce labour costs, and increase the yield rate due to the prevention of stock loss. In India, likewise, a startup company has enabled several hundred fish farmers with ponds and indoor tanks to optimize their stocking density of fish and therefore increase their final harvest with minimized mortality. This company also helps the farmers secure credit from banks by providing risk profiles of the fish farmers. These startups are run by relatively young “agropreneurs” and illustrate the growing phenomenon of younger graduates entering farming by providing value-added services.
There are also exciting developments to help farmers make better use of increasingly scarce or expensive inputs like water and fertilizer. Precision technologies, such as drip-irrigation which are supported by the monitoring of soil moisture and plant water status, are now available in several countries. One company has even developed technology to supply chilled, oxygen-enriched water to stimulate plants growth in the tropics.
In land-strapped countries like Singapore, the number of high tech vegetable and fish farms using vertical farming technology with multiple stacks of vegetables or fish tanks, and supported by digital tools to monitor the growing environment, and plant and fish growth, has increased dramatically during the pandemic. The Singapore government in fact enacted a “30 by 30” strategy to produce 30% of its nutrition needs (vegetables, fish and eggs) by 2030 and incentivized an accelerated research and development programme (called the Singapore Food Story) with some Singapore $144 Million to create new technologies that enable high-density farming. This follows on achievements in other Asian countries, notably Japan, China and South Korea, to increase their share of controlled-environment farming using indoor plant factories, a form of “Smart farming”. Moving forward, these indoor plant factories will also allow countries to address weather patterns attributable to climate change.
One of the significant set of activities precipitated by the pandemic has been on e-commerce – using telecommunications and the internet to link farmers to retailers, manufacturers to traders and food and beverage outlets to consumers at home. The growth of this sector has been spectacular in Asia as movement control measures to reduce the spread of the virus encouraged households to use the internet to order raw and cooked food. It is likely that this practice will continue even after the pandemic has become an endemic.
Apart from agtech, there has been similar growth in fintech and foodtech. Using digital technology and the widespread use of mobile phones and other portable personal devices, even giants like MastercardTM have entered this space of providing financial services to small farmers. Others have linked financial services to marketplace information. Likewise, foodtech is providing food processors and ultimately consumers with many new offerings, such as extending the shelf-life of vegetables and fruits with environment-friendly sealants and packaging are now in use. Precision fermentation technology has also seen an upsurge to produce more diverse plant-based protein, and in the near future, also cellular meat. Concern for the negative effects of producing animal protein on the environment and climate have spurred innumerable startup companies to venture into the “Alternative Protein” space. Furthermore, nutrition-enhanced food, such as with vitamin and essential minerals, is also likely to see an increase in the marketplace.
It can be argued that all the above would have happened even without the stimulus provided by the pandemic. But the pandemic has convincingly increased awareness on food security worldwide, and coupled with the COP26 climate summit urgings, has led to this increase in activity to use modern agtech, fintech and foodtech in sustaining our food systems.
Paul S. Teng is Adjunct Senior Fellow, Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies at Nanyang Technological University Singapore and concurrently Managing Director of NIE International Pte. Ltd. Singapore. He has worked in the Asia Pacific region on agri-food issues for over thirty years, with international organizations, academia and the private sector.
Genevieve Donnellon-May is a research assistant with the Institute of Water Policy (IWP) at the National University of Singapore. She is also a master’s student in Water Science, Policy and Management at the University of Oxford. Genevieve’s research interests include China, Africa, transboundary governance, and the food-energy-water nexus.
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