China looks to robots, big data to drive agriculture forward

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A XAG drone sprays pesticides on a lemon farm in Guangzhou. (Image credit: TechNode/ Shi Jiayi)

China wants robots and big data to drive the rural revival, according to a digital agriculture plan released Monday.

Why it matters:The Xi Jinping leadership has vowed to bridge China’s urban-rural gap, which dates back to the Mao era. It has settled on digital agriculture as the answer.

  • Digitalizing farming can raise average incomes and mobilize the rural consumer class. The next wave of growth will come not from top-tier urban hubs such as Beijing or Shanghai but from lesser-known third and fourth-tier cities.

Details:The “Digital Agriculture and Rural Area Development Plan 2019-2025” acknowledges(in Chinese) that data resources are scattered and coverage rates remain low. But top Party agencies are serious about the digitalizing the countryside and building 5G networks in these areas.

  • The plan sets hard targets. By 2025, the agricultural digital economy must account for 15% of China’s agriculture value-add, and the proportion of agricultural products sold online should hit 15%, according to the plan.
  • Internet access should reach 70% of rural areas by the same deadline.
  • The state wants to see a “new generation of agricultural robots.” These will track fish, diagnose diseases, and help in grazing and feeding animals.
  • Artificial intelligence should protect crops, generate aerial imagery, and monitor yields.
  • Agricultural machinery should leverage China’s homegrown satellite mapping system Beidou.
  • The plan is keen on leveraging data to tell farmers where, when, and how to plant.
  • Blockchain applications for rural finance, food safety, and supply chain transparency should also see breakthroughs.

Context:The future of agriculture and rural areas is closely tied to state goals such as the 2020 deadline for eradicating extreme poverty.

  • This plan is about “raising efficiency and improving productivity,” said a Beijing-based agricultural policy analyst. “The ag digital economy contributed only 7% of added value in 2018. Compared to other sectors, the farming digital economy is so small and there’s a large space for development.”
  • Expanding internet coverage will allow food producers to tap into e-commerce networks.
  • State-owned enterprises will get behind this plan. “State-owned farms in the northeast and Xinjiang are major buyers and users of technology,” this analyst added.