Agronomists and data scientists taking part in Pinduoduo’s Smart Agriculture Competition developed easy-to-use precision greenhouse management technology that boosted productivity and yield without need for special training on the part of growers.
The tomato-growing greenhouse challenge was won by TomaGrow, made up mostly of alumni from Wageningen University & Research and China Agricultural University with deep industry experience, according to Pinduoduo in a release. They beat three other teams in the final after being evaluated on yield, nutritional value, environmental sustainability and commercial viability. Over 120 researchers globally from 15 teams were shortlisted for the preliminary round of the competition.
During the six-month challenge, contestants took different approaches, combining nutrition science, computer vision, deep learning, and other precision farming technology to cultivate tomatoes remotely. The teams adjusted variables such as humidity, lighting and nutrient profiles from afar, showcasing the ability to manage growing operations remotely.
The teams managed to deliver yields that are about double the yields of traditional growers, according to experts. The nutritional value also registers in the top range of the industry, based on the inspection report from a leading food testing institute.
This is the second year that Pinduoduo has hosted the Smart Agriculture Competition. This year, the company partnered with China Agricultural University and Zhejiang University to organize the event, with technical support from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization and Wageningen University & Research. The competition also worked with a reputable institute to measure the carbon footprint for each team to establish benchmarks for future reference.
"Our global agri-food systems need innovative solutions to sustainably nourish people while nurturing our planet,” said Carlos Watson, FAO representative to China. "The Smart Agriculture Competition provides a unique platform for engaging young people, technologists, innovators, private sector and research institutes together, to incubate tailor-made practical solutions of addressing the real-life problems faced by smallholder farmers."
With about 80% of the participants in their 20s, the Smart Agriculture Competition has become a platform for young talented agricultural researchers to work on real-life “pain points” and develop practical solutions.
“Through this competition, we want to encourage more young people to make a meaningful impact in agriculture through technology,” said Li Daoliang, Dean of the International College of China Agricultural University. “These young talents are very important drivers for the agricultural modernization.”
One of the unique aspects of the competition is the emphasis on commercial viability in addition to productivity and sustainability. To ensure they are developing applications that are practical and cost-effective, all four finalists made sure to include commercial growers in their teams.
TomaGrow, the winning team, developed an easy-to-use greenhouse management model that integrates algorithms and sensors, and which can be used by farmers without special training. It was able to go one step further in developing a disease prediction model that gave farmers a one-week window to intervene and prevent loss.
“Agriculture is an industry with very low fault tolerance. Once disease occurs, it may deliver a devastating blow,” said Xu Dan, team leader of TomaGrow. The team will implement the model in larger-scale pilot projects in Beijing and Yunnan, with plans to offer the product commercially to tomato growers across the country.
Hamato and CyberTomato, two other finalist teams with academic backgrounds, also have plans to promote their greenhouse management systems to growers across China to help boost productivity and reduce costs through improving efficiencies.
Hamato developed low-cost and low-pollution carbon dioxide enrichment equipment that can enhance plant growth. CyberTomato trained computers to recognize how well the tomatoes were growing using visual recognition technology, which would help farmers to make better decisions on irrigation and harvesting.
“The event offers a good opportunity for young scientists to understand whom the technology is being developed for,” said He Yong, Dean of Biosystems Engineering and Food Science College of Zhejiang University. “This will broaden their horizon and provide value insights for their future work and research.”
Pinduoduo is organizing the annual competition as part of its support for efforts to improve and modernize the agriculture industry through technology. Since its founding in 2015, the company has made agriculture a key pillar of its strategy. As China’s largest agriculture platform, Pinduoduo directly connects 16 million farmers with over 850 million consumers. Last August, it unveiled a 10 Billion Agriculture Initiative to address critical needs in the agricultural sector and rural areas.
In parallel with the competition, the company is conducting a research project with Wageningen University & Research on enhancing tomato quality using sustainable growing methods.
“The driving force for the improvement of the agricultural industry comes from the development and application of technology,” said Andre Zhu, Senior Vice President at Pinduoduo. “We want to play our part to improve food security and quality in a sustainable way.”