Will advanced technologies serve as a turning point to revive Japan’s agriculture? They should be actively utilized.
Expectations have risen high for “smart agriculture” that makes full use of IoT (internet of things) to connect various elements through the internet, artificial intelligence and robots.
Amid the progress of digital revolutions in a wide range of industries, agriculture has lagged behind. However, agricultural machinery and facilities equipped with new technologies have now started to emerge.
They include self-driving tractors where one person can operate five units and a system in which the water level of irrigated farm fields can be controlled via smartphone. Another one enables effective fertilizing by using drones to check the growth conditions of crops.
The Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry will start verification tests in fiscal 2019 at model farms throughout the nation. Effects and problems must be examined carefully.
Japan’s agricultural production has been on a recovery track since 2015, but there are no prospects for the future. The graying of farmers is progressing, with their average age approaching 67.
Agriculture is a labor-intensive industry, and it requires manpower and time. Without increasing productivity and solving the lack of people engaged in agriculture, its decline is unavoidable. Promotion of smart agriculture appears to be one option to solve such problems.
If smart agriculture progresses, the burden of physical labor will be reduced, making it easier for women and the elderly to work in agriculture. It will probably pave the way for employment of disabled people.
Accumulation of big data for such matters as cultivation techniques could, in the future, enable the production of high-quality agricultural products without depending on expert skills. The government aims to expand exports of agricultural products, and it is hoped that smart agriculture leads to enhanced international competitiveness.
On the other hand, efforts for smart agriculture have just gotten under way, and there are many issues to be solved. For example, the operation of self-driving farm machinery and drones is, in principle, allowed only in the range the operator can see.
The government is urged to advance deregulation by confirming safety sufficiently through verification tests and other means.
A self-driving tractor costs about ¥10 million, 50 percent more than an ordinary tractor. It would be difficult for small-scale farmers to introduce them. It is hoped that many farmers can enjoy the benefits through such means as sharing self-driving tractors, along with lowered prices as they become more common.
Many things need to be done to introduce smart agriculture smoothly, including development of farm lands and farm roads where self-driving tractors are easy to operate, and the enhancement of telecommunications infrastructure at farming communities.
Unless smart agriculture is introduced simultaneously with policy measures such as upsizing farmlands and promoting the entry of corporate entities, it may not lead to drastic increases in productivity. In addition to depending on advanced technologies, structural reform in agriculture must not be neglected.