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Helping to increase farmers’ competitiveness

  • 2016-02-08 15:00:00
  • , Nikkei
  • Translation

(Nikkei: February 8, 2016 – p. 11)


 Agricultural ventures are bringing state-of-the-art technology to farms in fresh new ways. With the signing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact, Japan’s farmers will enter a new world of competition. They are raising their productivity by harnessing information technology (IT) and artificial intelligence (AI). There are also initiatives to raise product prices through selective breeding and new cultivation techniques. Companies are joining hands with farmers in an attempt to discover new ways to boost Japan’s agricultural competitiveness.


 Hokkaido’s Tokachi is one of Japan’s leading farming belts for potatoes, dairy cows, and among others. Farmland stretches as far as the eye can see. Tractors equipped with 20 m long sprayers make their way through the fields. The drivers are looking at more than just the field, though. They are using smartphones to check whether agricultural chemicals and fertilizer have been sprayed.


 On large-scale farms, it is hard to tell whether agricultural chemicals and fertilizers have been sprayed because they are in the form of mist. Thanks to their smartphone’s global positioning system (GPS), the tractor drivers are shown the movement of their tractor and the status of the spraying of chemicals. This eliminates waste: the costs of fuel and the chemicals and fertilizer sprayed are down by about 10%. This system was developed by Agri Info Design, Ltd. (Obihiro City, Hokkaido).


 Agri Info Design President Yasuyuki Hamada is aiming “to develop core infrastructure that links up the communications technology installed in farm equipment.” If common standards and specifications are adopted, agricultural costs can be reduced even further, he says.


 Sense of crisis over imports


 Some tractor management systems cost as much as 500,000 yen just for the terminals because the development of specialized terminals takes time and expense. Agri Info Design offers a free smartphone application. Business costs are covered by advertising income. The application has been downloaded 20,000 times.


 [The farming community] is concerned about the influx of cheap imports once the TPP comes into force. For example, the 3% tariff on carrots and pumpkin and the 4.3% tariff on potatoes will be removed. Japan’s self-sufficiency rate for potatoes is high at 73%. Agri Info Design President Yasuyuki Hamada says, “There is a great sense of crisis among farmers.”


 Hokkaido is home to many large-scale farms as well as to agricultural ventures. It is a model area for new endeavors [that bring together technology and agriculture].


 In June, Farmnote (Obihiro City, Hokkaido) marketed a cattle management system that harnesses AI. It collects data on the rumination time and physical condition of each cow through a sensor attached to the cow. Farmers can determine whether the animal is in heat or ill by analyzing the data with AI.


 Each sensor costs 26,800 yen, excluding tax, and the cloud usage charge per animal is 200 yen a month. The health status of over 90,000 cows is already being monitored with the company’s existing system. After the [solid] performance in Hokkaido, “the system is now also used at farms in Kagoshima and Mie Prefectures,” says President Shinya Kobayashi. Agricultural ventures are thus marketing their services beyond Hokkaido.


 Vegetalia, Inc. (Shibuya Ward, Tokyo) is working with NTT Docomo to improve the productivity of rice paddies in Niigata City. Sensors were installed in the rice paddies to measure the water level, water temperature, ambient temperature, and humidity. If an abnormal reading to recorded, an alert is issued via smartphone.


 The system performs data analysis on cultivation methods that require the experience and intuition of veterans. It is an attempt to “cultivate rice based on scientific knowledge” (says President Satoshi Koike) while reducing the burden of water management, which is a time-consuming aspect of rice farming.


 President Koike is a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley in the United States. He is known in Japan for advocating the “Bit Valley concept” which is attracting many Net businesses to Tokyo’s Shibuya.


 As the TPP will eliminate the barrier of tariffs, some agricultural ventures are looking to overseas markets. Plant Breeding Institute (Kuriyama Town, Hokkaido) is seeking to develop a market for its high-performance onions.


 “High-performance vegetables”


 Plant Breeding Institute has created onions that have two to five times the amount of “quercetin” compared to regular onions. Quercetin is thought to prevent arteriosclerosis and control increases in blood glucose levels. The institute bred them by collecting over 300 varieties of onion from around the world and crossbreeding them.


 The institute worked with Mitsui & Co. to develop the onions as a commercial product, and now they are being sold in supermarkets for 130 yen each, more than twice the price of regular onions. President Daisaku Okamoto plans to start exporting to Southeast Asia, saying, “High-performance onions are unusual throughout the world.”


 According to Seed Planning, the market for IT-powered “smart agriculture” equipment and services was worth 13.1 billion yen in 2014. Furthermore, it is forecast to spread rapidly in the future to grow five-fold to about 70 billion yen by 2020. According to Teruaki Nanseki, professor of agricultural management science and informatics at Kyushu University, “In many ways, agriculture is still undeveloped in terms of IT. With the TPP, there will be more and more interest in this.”

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