The farming sector in Southeast Asia should transform to adopt digital agriculture and disruptive breeding technologies to catch up with predicted food scarcity and raise agriculture's contribution to jobs and gross domestic product, according to an expert.
The farm sector in Southeast Asia is the least digitized sector of the economies in the region with only $4.6 billion invested for agriculture technology in 2016, according to AgFunder.
On the contrary, the needed investment for agriculture technology in the region totals $265 billion per year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization.
Southeast Asian agriculture expert Paul Teng said in a consultation organized by the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA) that technology adoption will be a key determinant of farm growth.
"Given that time-sensitive small loans are the biggest challenge that farmers face, it'll be interesting to see solutions such as record-keeping platforms that enable small and marginal farmers to keep records, track their farming activity and build a credit profile," said Teng during the recent SEARCA-organized forum "Reshaping Agriculture & Development in SE Asia."
He stressed that digital agriculture, which primarily refers to Internet of Things (IoT), enables knowledge intensity in agriculture. For one, agriculture production depends highly on weather stability, and IoT provides higher accuracy of information on data-enabled agriculture through more accurate weather forecasting.
IoT, which includes mobile computing data sensors, satellite and imagery, contributes to information on irrigation, soil condition and topography that are critical in farming.
Technologies in financing (fintech) will also be pivotal in farm development, providing time-sensitive small loans to farmers. Further, smart phones are instrumental in collaboration between fintech startups and traditional farm financing entities.
"This would help farmers in effectively building a knowledge base that will help them get access to favourable loan terms that correlate with their farming activities," said Teng.
New biology can raise food production
Teng also said that gene-editing biotechnologies provide the ability to edit native crop genes coding for important traits and generating non-transgenic plants. Genome-edited (important) crops include soybean, maize, wheat, rice, potato, tomato and peanuts.
He also enumerated the following as among the technologies that should be invested in by the farming sector, citing AgFunder 2018:
– Farm management software, sensing and IoT — agriculture data capturing devices, decision support software, and big data analytics;
– Robotics, mechanisation and equipment — on-farm machinery, automation, drones and growing equipment.
– Novel farming systems — Indoor farms, aquaculture, and insect, algae and microbe production.
– Novel seeds – Biotech seeds;
– Bioenergy and biomaterials — On-farm agriculture waste processing, biomaterials production and anaerobic digesters;
– Agribusiness marketplaces —Commodities trading platforms, online input procurement, and equipment leasing used by farmers;
– Farm-to-consumer eGrocery – Online platforms for farmers to sell and deliver their produce direct to consumers.
– Miscellaneous — Land management tech, and financial services for farmers.
But, on top of investing in technology, Teng said the agriculture sector should be directed to a transformation process toward the following:
– Managing climate uncertainties and water scarcity;
– Agro-industrial value chains and integration of smallholders; and
– Farm tourism and family farming.
As global population is projected to reach 10 billion by 2050, worldwide farm productivity should be raised by 60 percent in 2050 to close the food shortage gap.
"ASEAN countries produce much [top three for a range of agri-food products] but still depend on imports from outside region to meet needs for animal feed (soybean) and wheat. There's still high prevalence of hunger and under-nutrition," Teng said.
ASEAN is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.