Fulco Wijdooge, General Manager China at Ridder Group, investigates the potential of technology and talent to intensify agricultural production in China.
China is the world’s top producer of cereals, fruit, vegetables, meat, poultry, eggs and fishery products. It has achieved the remarkable feat of producing one quarter of the world’s grain, feeding one fifth of the global population, and all with less than 10 per cent of the world’s arable land.
However, China also faces several challenges – chief among them is how to increase food production to meet rising demand while protecting its farmland from degradation, water scarcity, pollution and urbanisation. China’s total arable land area fell by almost 6 per cent in 2019, compared with a decade earlier, according to a once-in-a-decade official land use survey published in August this year. The government has drawn “red lines” to protect farmland from encroachment.
Adding to the challenge of diminishing farmland is an aging and shrinking agricultural workforce. The proportion of primary industry labor, which includes agriculture, has declined steadily from 50 per cent of the total labor force in 2000 to 27 per cent in 2017, according to data from the 2018 China Agricultural and Rural Development Report.
Intensifying production through innovation
Technological and scientific innovation may hold the answer to these challenges. Examples from the Netherlands show how utilising innovative farming technologies can help countries overcome the problems of size and resources. Despite having a land area of only 42,500 square kilometers (16,409 square miles), the Netherlands is the second-largest exporter of food by monetary value after the U.S., which is more than 230 times its size.
The Dutch tomato industry produces more tomatoes per square mile than anywhere else in the world, making it the runaway global leader in yield. The country is also number one by yield in chilies, green peppers, and cucumbers, second in pears, and fifth in carrots, potatoes, and onions.
The Netherlands has been able to achieve this by relying heavily on greenhouses, which allow farmers to closely control growing conditions and optimise the use of resources like water and fertiliser. More is done with less, such as applying innovations like hydroponic farming on a large scale. Advances in technology like artificial intelligence and smart sensors have further increased yields by allowing algorithms to manage the optimal levels of climate conditions and inputs.
A model for China?
Can the Dutch model be replicated in China with the same or more success?
Quite possibly, with the important caveat that technology is tailored to the unique local conditions of Chinese agriculture.
One of the key concerns for smallholder farmers in China in adopting technology is cost. For smallholder farmers with limited financial resources, a state-of-the-art greenhouse is economically unfeasible. Recognising this gap, companies like Pinduoduo have been gathering teams of researchers from top universities around the world to develop cost-effective “one-click planting” solutions that can raise the yield and incomes of smallholder farmers by using a combination of smart greenhouses and algorithms.
The technology teams that took part in a strawberry-growing competition organized by Pinduoduo produced 196 per cent more fruit on average compared with traditional growers, showcasing the potential for precision technology to boost productivity and yield.
Such initiatives also help to address another potential bottleneck in China’s drive to modernise its agricultural industry: the lack of talent. The increasing role of technology and data science in agriculture requires an influx of new skills that the traditional farming workforce may not have. Encouraging more people to adopt agronomy, automation, and algorithms to boost yields would be a key success factor.
Finally, the success equation needs to consider how well the produce sells. This was demonstrated when traditional wholesale channels were paralyzed during the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to stockpiles of unsold produce. Here, change is already underway with e-commerce playing an increasingly bigger role in helping farmers sell directly to consumers. The ability to market to a wider pool of consumers has helped many rural communities diversify their market and create more demand for their products.
But here too, China faces a shortage of skilled talent to drive rural e-commerce, with an increase in projected shortfall of 2.1 million in 2021 to 3.5 million in 2025, according to a report by the China Agricultural University in June 2020.
A separate study by the China Institute of Economic Trends of the Economic Daily and the School of Agriculture and Rural Development of Renmin University of China found that less than 30 per cent of farmers in China are involved in new businesses like agricultural e-commerce and organic farming, despite evidence that these activities bring tangible benefits like higher incomes and rural modernisation.
Introducing the right technology and training the required talent remain two pressing priorities. Like water and sunlight, they are the two inputs that China’s agricultural modernisation drive cannot do without.