ZHANG,CHEN-JIA（China Productivity Center Smart Agriculture Promotion Department ）
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused great loss of lives and economy around the world, and has aroused serious social unrest. On the other hand, it has also changed people's life patterns. The practice of social distancing has been imposed in many countries to reduce the chances of physical contact. This has also given rise to the "0-Touch Economy." Emerging models of "distance behavior" and "home economy" have been widely discussed, suggesting the development of the "new normal" life pattern derived during the pandemic.
The "new normal" is a hot topic, suggesting that things will not be back to what it was like before, and even if the quiet and peaceful life of the past was restored, consumption and production behaviors would be very different. This means a huge impact on agriculture, which typically requires a lot of labor power and high timeliness. Countries like the US, Japan, China, etc. have started to formulate various "post-coronavirus era" agricultural strategies. The EU plans to invest 35 billion euros in two years to make agricultural digitalization a key component of agricultural restoration.
Changes caused by the pandemic on consumer behavior
The pandemic blocked human travel between countries, and also the transaction of agricultural products. Compared with other industrial products, agricultural products are more time-sensitive and require a stable domestic market and high technologies of refrigerated transportation. The fragility of food transportation has aroused people’s awareness of the fragility of the supply chain. The rise of trade protectionism has added to the sense of self-sufficiency of food as a national security issue. Consumers are now more concerned about the local food production, its quality, sources of origin, and the health and nutrition conditions. Higher consumer acceptance is found with local agricultural products.
On-line purchase and non-physical consumption are now the mainstream format of transaction, to minimize the risk of cluster transmission. In response to the decline of physical transaction, the Council of Agriculture cooperated with online market platforms to launch the event of "Taiwan Agricultural Products Carnival Plus," which created a total revenue of NT$450 million, far exceeding the original target of NT$350 million. Precisely because of the difference between the export and the domestic markets, farmers are more willing to adopt new production management systems and software to implement digitized and traceable agricultural production on the basis of the superb web technologies. Unlike the former individual effort, farmers now joint their power through farmers’ associations, agricultural enterprises, farmers’ groups and cross-sector cooperation to create unique brands and facilitate direct sales to consumers, resulting in a direct connection between consumers and agricultural products. Changes are also made in the post-harvest processing after the farmers have further understanding of the market demand and channel, so that values are added to the agricultural products, and the risks of overproduction are minimized. This is how smart technology is exercised to develop more marketing channels and to stabilize market prices.
The pandemic accelerates the introduction of smart machinery
Under the raging pandemic, international travel is largely blocked, and migrant workers are also in short supply, causing even serious problem to the labor shortage on farms in Taiwan. To meet the challenge, a lot of processing of production and marketing has been changed in the agriculture. For instance, labor-saving machinery and equipment, assistive devices and sensing components, and drones, combined with cross-sector ICT, Internet of Things (IoT), and big data analysis, block chain and AI, etc. are all incorporated not only to meet the shortage of migrant labor supply, but also to reduce labor demand on farms. These are also helpful in introducing to the farmers more efficient farm operations to alleviate the impact of the pandemic.
For example, at Taoyuan Bigger Farm (桃城蒔菜農業生產合作社), where farmers used to spend huge amount of time and manpower on farm management, microclimate changes are now monitored through the integration of sensory monitoring and Internet of Things technologies, and with a smart environment control and shading equipment, automated irrigation is practiced according to the growth stage to achieve higher accuracy of irrigation and fertilization as well as better water conservation effect. At the same time, big data calculations are performed to predict growth patterns. Dancing-lady Orchid Garden, with the consultation of Taichung Agricultural Research and Extension Station, has adopted smart light supplementation technologies to upgrade the quality of the flowers and extend the harvest period. In terms of harvesting, image recognition technologies are used in orchards and greenhouses in collaboration with fruit picking robots and related labor-saving transportation technologies to double the harvesting efficiency. It not only reduces the manpower, but also increases the yield and maintains the stable quality.
For open-air crops like rice, pineapples, tea leaves, and soybeans, farmers now use mechanical technologies integrated with the positioning systems and Internet of Things to easily monitor the growth using drones on a large scale of farmland. The IoT information transmission, combined with the technologies of image recognition, field mapping, and AI calculations, can have the crop growth conditions, future growth forecasts, and the latest market prices and demands displayed on smart devices in real time, allowing farmers to remotely manage their farms and arrange the most suitable production schedule.
Disease prevention is particularly important for the poultry and livestock industries. The use of intelligent machines can reduce the probability of diseases and foreign bacteria being brought in during human operations. Poultry farms like Yuan Jin Chuang (元進莊) and Fang Yuan Animal Farm have built closed poultry houses, integrated IoT equipment, system integration and big data, so that they can remotely monitor the poultry houses, and automatically regulate the temperature, humidity, ventilation and lighting to maintain a smart poultry environment for the optimal efficiency and quality. For livestock farmers, they may use cleaning robots, grass pushing robots, feeding robots... etc., in conjunction with sound and image monitoring technologies to reduce repetitive and labor-intensive tasks. This has largely reduced labor costs and minimized the risk of diseases entering the field. Physiological conditions of the animals are monitored in real time, turning the labor-intensive livestock industry into an automated and intelligent pioneering industry.
The pandemic as a thrust for progress of smart agriculture
COVID -19 has undoubtedly brought challenges to the agricultural sector, but it may be a driving force for the development of smart agriculture. Started in 2018, the smart agriculture development effort has seen considerable progress in the adoption of smart machines and labor-saving aids, and also witnessed the involvement by more and more organizations and institutions in terms of research and development. The biggest problem faced, however, is the large capital investment in the initial stage, which may discourage many farmers, who are accustomed to relying on their long-term experience. This had been a long and slow process until the sudden outbreak of the pandemic, which caused the labor shortage and the market price fluctuations. This has motivated the involvement of young farmers, and the encouragement and subsidies from the competent authority added much support to the process of smart farming movement. This has reduced the workload of the farmers and raised the efficiency of agricultural machinery. In terms of advanced greenhouse agriculture, open-air planting to livestock and poultry breeding, smart agriculture has paved the way for agricultural development, improving the production efficiency. It has filled up the shortage of labor and increased the productivity. At the same time, the information gap between the producers and the consumers is bridged, so that more people have a better understanding of agricultural production.
The outbreak of COVID-19 has been a reminder of the challenges we need to overcome, the priority development goals, and the adequacy of the current policies for future goals. It may be taken as a rare opportunity for agriculture, to accelerate the pace of smart agricultural development. It has suggested a new way of production, and most importantly, has enhanced our ability to prevent possible disasters in the future. It has become a touchstone for examining the past and looking forward to the future, so that smart agriculture will not only benefit agricultural stakeholders but also become the cornerstone of the country's development.