For agricultural entrepreneur Xu Dan, one big hurdle he had to cross in his career in farming was transitioning from lab-based research work to practical application in a commercial setting.
To make the jump, the master’s degree holder in organic agriculture from Holland’s Wageningen University & Research worked for a company called Royal Pride Holland to gain practical experience growing tomatoes. He returned to China in 2016 and founded a high-tech greenhouse startup. Together with his team of mostly Wageningen students and alumni, Xu is taking part in the Smart Agriculture Competition organized by Pinduoduo, China’s largest agriculture platform.
“Agriculture is a very practical industry,” said Xu, whose team TomaGrow is one of four finalists in the competition. “No matter if you are a graduate student or a doctoral student, you are likely to face a situation where practice and theory are very disconnected when you come back to start your own business.”
The Smart Agriculture Competition, with around 80% of its participants in their 20s, has become a platform where young and talented researchers in the fields of agriculture and technology can work on real-life problems faced by smallholder farmers. It has also become a practical proving ground for agriculture technology born in the laboratory. It is co-organized by China Agricultural University and Zhejiang University, with technical guidance from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN and Wageningen University & Research.
“At present, many of our resources are in universities and research institutes, and there are no channels for commercializing them,” said Zhu Qingzhen, a PhD graduate in development of agricultural control systems and head of Horti-AI, another of the finalist teams. “We would like to take advantage of this competition to see if we can make our technical solutions feasible and implement them to serve the construction of ecological agriculture in China.”
The Smart Agriculture Competition is one of Pinduoduo’s initiatives to support agricultural modernization and rural vitalization in China. In August, Pinduoduo announced a “10 Billion Agriculture Initiative” to face and address critical needs in the agricultural sector and rural areas. Among its aims is to facilitate the advancement of agtech, promote digital inclusion and provide agritech talent and workers with greater motivation and a sense of achievement.
“We are happy to do our part to act as a bridge between academic research and commercial application in the area of agricultural technology,” said Andre Zhu, Senior Vice President at Pinduoduo. “That’s why we initiated the Smart Agriculture Competition to focus on developing practical, cost-effective technology tailored to the needs of smallholder farmers.”
Pinduoduo’s platform, which serves more than 800 million consumers and 16 million farmers, provides a natural real-world testbed for agricultural technology solutions. It is also exposing young talent from different scientific and technological disciplines to agriculture and how it can be a promising and viable career.
This is particularly important as younger and higher-educated talent are needed in agriculture to adopt high-tech agricultural technology to boost productivity and make food production more sustainable.
The Smart Agriculture Competition is a great opportunity for cross-disciplinary cooperation to try out new ideas, such as developing better sensors and using them to collect better data, which would then be used to control the system more precisely, according to Yang Junfeng, a PhD candidate at Zhejiang University who specializes in research into the genetic features of wild tomatoes. He is a member of Team Hamato, which includes data scientists, sensor specialists and partners with experience in operating commercial greenhouses.
“We have been to many places in China and found technologies haven’t been fully integrated in agriculture,” said Yang. “Through this competition I want more people to know that China’s agricultural research has made a lot of breakthroughs and accumulated a lot of experiences. We can apply them into actual production.”
For Liang Juwen, 27, a PhD student at China Agricultural University and part of Team CyberTomato, introducing information technology to agricultural applications can persuade more young people to go into agriculture as “young people may not be too willing to go into the field and grow crops under the sun like their parents’ generation did.”
“The prospects are very bright so I want to engage in agriculture after I graduate,” he said.