The Yomiuri ShimbunYasufumi Miwa, an expert at the Japan Research Institute, spoke with The Yomiuri Shimbun about the potential of smart farming in terms of revitalizing and sustaining Japan’s agriculture. The following is excerpted from the interview.
Managing paddies with IoT
The Yomiuri Shimbun: How do you see the current situation of Japanese agriculture?
Yasufumi Miwa: Japan’s agricultural industry stands at a crossroads. While we can see signs that it is emerging from long-term stagnation — agricultural output has increased for two consecutive years — farmers are aging and the amount of abandoned farmland continues to increase. It is time that we utilize the digital revolution for the agricultural industry to transform it into “smart agriculture.”
[Smart agriculture aims for increasing productivity by using IoT (the internet of things) and robotics.]
In my view, 2018 will be marked as the first year of smart agriculture. As technology has advanced, some products are now available and affordable for farmers to operate.
One product, for example, is a valve for water supply and drainage for paddy fields, which can be remotely controlled via a smartphone. The valve automatically opens or shuts according to a preset water level. It would save labor and quality control of rice would be easier.
It is reasonably priced at somewhat more than ¥100,000, and hundreds of units in a limited sale sold out instantly. There is a waiting list for the devices going on sale next year.
Advanced technology dramatically improves agricultural productivity. About three companies announced to put autopilot tractors on the market. This will enable one person to operate multiple tractors simultaneously.
A farmer in Hokkaido operates seven autopilot tractors at the same time. It simply means the labor cost per grain of rice would be reduced to one-seventh. Because labor costs are a significant portion of agricultural costs, lower labor costs can have a huge impact.
Moreover, applications of artificial intelligence have also become more practical. AI technology is used for collision avoidance on autopilot tractors, and another kind of AI photographs and analyzes crops’ leaves to deal with insect problems. The age of AI helping farmers has arrived.
Attract potential farmers
Q: How do you think agricultural management in Japan will change in the future?
A: Smart farming will bring major transformations to the agriculture industry. First, it will promote employing more diverse personnel.
[The average age of a farmer is nearly 67, while that of a rice farmer is over 70. Smart farming is expected to help alleviate the labor shortage.]
The agriculture industry seeks to employ people of different ages and both genders as well as people with disabilities. Autopilot tractors spare female farmers from the physically difficult work of steering the machines. In some areas, people with disabilities are playing an active role in monitoring farmland using agricultural drones.
Although young people who have graduated from agricultural high schools or universities used to go through a period of on-the-job training and learning, they can graduate work-ready in smart agriculture. Once Japan’s agriculture transforms into an industry that attracts and employs various types of people, it would be able to maintain certain competitiveness.
The role of agricultural cooperatives will change as well. Cases will likely increase in which local agricultural cooperatives buy smart-farm equipment in volume, which farmers will request to be used on their land. In Hokkaido, a large-scale agricultural corporation with semi-autonomous equipment has already undertaken work by offering land owners a price per unit of area.
Because smart-farm equipment offers high work efficiency, it better suits being shared rather than being owned by individual farmers.
When a system for division of labor comes along with smart farming, part-time farmers will be able to pursue “profitable agriculture,” and agricultural cooperatives will secure a new source of revenue. It is also possible that new start-up companies will be established to take on farming as a business.
Govt should be proactive
Q: How should the government play a role in smart agriculture?
A: The government should quickly set up operational guidelines and consider deregulation not to hinder the introduction of such smart farming in the agriculture business.
The government is inevitably not swift enough to utilize advanced techniques. Under current guidelines, autopilot tractors and drones can be operated only within sight of an operator. This restricts IoT’s possibilities.
That equipment can be safely monitored from a distance. Coupled with all other technologies such as image analysis and AI, safety can be fully guaranteed.
Introducing a regulatory sandbox — which means designating specific areas for deregulation — could be an idea. People hoping to become farmers would gather there and engage in smart farming freely. In return, they would report the benefits and problems. The government should take the initiative by embarking on a bold test, while it reexamines its guidelines accordingly.
The Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry has already introduced special zones for agriculture, as a feasibility study, to accept foreign workers and new entrants into the agriculture industry. It should enlarge its scope to include advanced technology.
Once smart farming takes hold, it could be possible to export the idea of the system as a whole to foreign markets, as well as agricultural products. Administrative ability is being tested in how it can revitalize Japan’s agriculture through smart farming.
— This interview was conducted by Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer Taisuke Takeda.
■ Yasufumi Miwa / Expert at the Japan Research Institute
Miwa, 39, earned a master’s degree in 2004 from the University of Tokyo Graduate School of Agricultural and Life Sciences. He specializes in local vitalization through renovating agriculture. He serves as a council member of the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry.Speech