The application of artificial intelligence can help countries tackle the problem of aging farming labor by improving the productivity.
At the inaugural Smart Agriculture Competition organized by Pinduoduo, China’s largest agricultural e-commerce platform, teams of data scientists are applying AI algorithms to grow strawberries remotely in automated greenhouses. They are competing against traditional farmers to see who can deliver the most economic benefit.
For Fulco Wijdooge, a member of the judging panel, the impact is already clear even though the competition runs until November. The application of AI has the potential to transform agriculture at a time when the industry is facing a shortage of skilled growers, he said.
“If you can do this, you can scale it up, and you can implement this in whatever setup you have,” said Wijdooge, who is also the general manager for Asia at Ridder Group, which is supplying the greenhouse technology for the competition. Technology is a “big help for the industry because we have a lack of skilled labor, skilled growers” and “AI can make a difference in increasing the yield and quality of the crop.”
Wijdooge was speaking in an interview at the competition about an hour’s drive from Kunming, the provincial capital of Yunnan. He was there to check on the progress of the teams.
Over the competition, teams of data scientists will compete with master growers to see who can derive the most economic benefit from their designated strawberry plots. The technology teams will remotely grow strawberries in automated greenhouses. They will formulate and optimize AI solutions based on growth data and greenhouse conditions gleaned from IoT devices, cameras, and sensors.
The traditional teams, on the other hand, will rely on their collective experience in planting and skills in agricultural management to upgrade smallholder production and challenge the AI systems developed by their counterparts.
Pinduoduo organized the competition jointly with the China Agricultural University, under the technical guidance of the Food and Agriculture Organization. The e-commerce platform, which has almost 700 million active buyers, has made it a strategic priority to digitize agriculture so that the efficiency gains can be shared with farmers and consumers.
The competition has attracted interest from nearly 40 teams worldwide, including from top agricultural universities of the Netherlands and China. The winner will be evaluated on the practical economic benefit they bring and the technical merit of the growing techniques.
"Through this Smart Agriculture Competition, we hope to showcase the potential economic benefits achievable from integrating advanced information technology with traditional agriculture best practices," said David Liu, Vice President of Strategy at Pinduoduo. "This is the beginning of a long-term exploration and collaboration. We hope to spread the word about the outcomes of this competition and bring about real economic benefits to agricultural producers."
Agriculture analytics can help advise farmers on what to plant and when to harvest by considering historical and projected information. Precision farming using robotics, IoT sensors, greenhouse technology can help minimize the use of labor, better control for diseases, and cut production costs.
“We are just at the beginning of the application of AI to agriculture,” and the technology holds great potential in helping consumers with safer food and farmers get better yields and crop quality, said Wijdooge. While the technology will probably be rolled out first in large-scale farms, there are opportunities for application to smaller-scale setups, he said.
He urged all those involved in agriculture to “move beyond the current mindset” toward AI and embrace the potential. “This is not something that one person can do, one company can do, or one country can do. This is something that we all need to do and work together to make sure it is sustainable.”