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Asia digs deep to upgrade its agriculture

Perfect storm of population growth and climate change spurs farming innovation

Japanese agtech venture Spread can ship 21,000 heads of lettuce from its Kyoto factory per day. (Photo by Hirofumi Yamamoto)

Consider it a wake-up call from nature. Asian crops were devastated by a severe drought this year, highlighting the urgent need to stabilize farm output and brace for the consequences of climate change. And with the region's population projected to continue growing over the long term, this is no easy task.

The good news is that answers are starting to emerge. Agribusinesses are harnessing information technology. Organic farms and so-called plant factories are becoming hothouses for innovation. International investors are keen to water the seeds.

This week, we head out into the fields -- and some cutting-edge facilities -- to glimpse the future of Asian farming.

TOKYO Even the most technologically advanced indoor farm starts with a very basic problem. When you take sunlight out of the equation you gain more control, but you also lose a whole lot of free energy.

The bankruptcy of a Japanese farming venture in 2015 highlighted this dilemma. The factory had been touted in the media as the future of farming. Partly due to power costs, however, its break-even price was simply too high compared with conventional farms.

Spread's lettuce factory in Kyoto (Photo by Hirofumi Yamamoto)

Still, the bankruptcy does not mean the hype was baseless. Under new ownership, the factory is becoming a viable business by finding buyers who are willing to pay a premium for high-quality produce. Similar indoor farming ventures are adding value by growing vegetables rich in specific nutrients.

And then there is Spread, which is taking a different approach. It wants to win in the mass market -- in supermarkets -- and that means competing against veggies grown in the field.

Spread's secret? Volume. The company packs a lot of lettuce into its 3,000-sq.-meter factory in western Kyoto, Japan's ancient capital. The heads grow on rows upon rows of shelves under fluorescent lights. The factory has the capacity to ship 21,000 of them per day -- enough to make the lettuce profitable even if it sells for 198 yen ($1.79). The average price in Tokyo as of November was 251 yen, according to Numbeo, which tracks the cost of living in big cities.

The facility, which started operating in 2008, was stuck in the red for the first five years. But efficiency improvements lifted it into the black in the year ended March 2014. Shinji Inada, Spread's CEO, explained that putting the hardware in place is only half the battle. "It is up to the staff to adapt to the environment," he said. "Once the business becomes profitable, profit is generally stable."

Just because the lettuce grows indoors does not mean the weather is a complete nonfactor. Air conditioning must be set up to keep the temperature steady for all four seasons. Even then, there are changes in humidity. So it takes time to determine how to manage all the variables, including the light and carbon dioxide essential for photosynthesis.

All this is part of Spread's plan to live up to its name. The company is building expertise for a new factory in Kansai Science City, a research hub that straddles the prefectures of Kyoto, Osaka and Nara. The plant, now under construction, will use artificial intelligence to automate tasks like sowing seeds, replanting and harvesting. The new facility is expected to be completed in 2017.

Whether by growing crops indoors or other means, Asia needs to boost yields and mitigate extreme weather. Consumption in big markets like China and India is likely to continue growing steadily.

"Asia cannot produce enough to support itself," the Netherlands' Rabobank wrote in its "Asia-Pacific: agricultural perspectives" report. The bank noted that "limited arable land, inadequate water and poor resource management" are constraining production.

That is at the best of times. This year, vast swaths of Asia were hit by drought linked to the El Nino weather phenomenon, resulting in massive crop failures.

RESILIENT RICE To feed itself, Asia needs solutions, and Singapore's Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory aims to provide some.

The nonprofit research institute is funded by Temasek Trust -- the philanthropic arm of sovereign wealth fund Temasek Holdings. TLL, as the lab is known, spent eight years developing Temasek Rice, a resilient breed capable of withstanding extreme weather conditions and producing higher yields.

Temasek Rice was created using a modern technique known as marker-assisted selection. This allows scientists to zero in on desired traits and breed new, improved crops. Yin Zhongchao, TLL's senior principal investigator, said this type of breeding can enhance food security by increasing production "in a more efficient and sustainable manner."

Since land is limited in Singapore, TLL's rice is being grown in Indonesia, and the lab wants to partner with more companies to boost production.

The 2008 global food crisis was a key motivator behind the Temasek Rice project. Rising oil prices and severe weather sent food prices soaring. In developing countries, domestic rice prices climbed as much as 90% between the third quarter of 2007 and the same period of 2008, according to the FAO.

Peter Chia, left, chief operating officer at Singapore's TLL, and Yin Zhongchao, the lab's senior principal investigator, inspect Temasek Rice. (Photo by Justina Lee)

Peter Chia, TLL's chief operating officer, said the crisis showed "how vulnerable rice cultivation could be as a result of climate change."

"As agriculture becomes more knowledge intensive," he added, "our role in agriculture is not limited to production but using science, innovation and technology to create a positive impact across the whole value chain."

Thanks to the spread of mobile communications, farmers have quite a bit of knowledge at their fingertips. Even without souped-up seeds, detailed weather data and other information can help them to cope with climate change -- and other threats that come their way.

This past January, Vietnamese state telecom company VinaPhone started a service called Nong Thon Xanh, or Green Country. Basically, it turns mobile phones into farm assistants.

Through a social network, farmers can subscribe to three packages. For 10,000 dong (45 cents) per month, they get access to an agricultural warning package that includes a range of information: weather forecasts, prices, plant disease alerts, guidelines on relevant state policies, advisories on abnormal conditions affecting agriculture and so on. Coffee and rice packages, available for 31 cents and 22 cents a week respectively, offer tailored guidance to help farmers prevent diseases from wiping out their crops.

With a local partner, AgriMedia, VinaPhone has set up automated weather stations across the country. AgriMedia, in turn, has partnered with Japan's Weathernews in an effort to improve its forecasts.

VinaPhone's next step will be to build a call center, where agriculture experts will be on hand to answer questions from farmers. It also plans to expand the advice to cover gum trees, pepper and cashews.

In Indonesia, startup 8Villages provides similar services.

The advent of the internet of things -- the ever-growing web of connected gadgetry -- is bringing further big changes to the field. Japanese companies Kubota and NTT group have allied to develop automated agricultural machinery that taps big data. They envision a system that analyzes crop conditions and issues the machines instructions, be it to harvest vegetables or spray pesticides.

Singaporean startup Garuda Robotics is using drones to help Southeast Asian farmers increase yields.

The company's fully autonomous drone features a powerful built-in camera along with advanced sensors for detecting biomass and measuring temperatures. When it zooms over an oil palm plantation, it generates data including aerial maps and 3-D land contour models. This data is fed through an artificial intelligence system, which generates a report on tree health and land optimization.

This way, farmers can allocate fertilizer and other resources to the areas that need the most care, reducing costs and waste.

"It is difficult to use traditional methods, like getting people to count the number of trees, and get accurate data," said Mark Yong, Garuda Robotics' founder and CEO. "A 100,000 hectare [plantation] could have about 1 million trees."

Precision, he stressed, makes all the difference. "The problem with agriculture is variation such as weather, rainfall, soil quality and fertilizer. So there is a need to capture accurate data and find out what is happening on the plantation."

The Philippines has a new tool of its own for keeping tabs on farms -- a microsatellite. The launch of the craft in March marked not only the country's first foray into space but also a big upgrade for its relatively underdeveloped agricultural sector.

The government is using the satellite, the Diwata-1, to survey farmland and vegetation. Data and images are delivered daily to a ground station called the Philippine Earth Data Resources and Observation Center. With this and other information, experts at the center can advise farmers on the prevalence of pests and estimate rice yields. This can help the government decide whether to import rice or source it locally.

Researchers at the University of the Philippines are also using the data in studies on "smart agriculture." The satellite is expected to orbit for 18-20 months before its twin, the Diwata-2, is launched. The government has earmarked a total of 840 million pesos ($16.88 million) for the two satellites and the ground station.

From a consumer's perspective, of course, crop yields are not the only concern. Asia's rising middle class is wary of residual pesticides or other contaminants on vegetables grown in China and elsewhere. People want to know the food they are eating is safe, and to an extent, they are willing to pay more for that peace of mind.

It should not be surprising, then, that organic farming is booming across the region. And as it turns out, organic techniques may have some advantages when it comes to growing tasty veggies capable of withstanding harsh weather.

SCIENCE OVER INTUITION This brings us back to Japan. In August, some 20 farmers from around the country gathered in the city of Chiba, near Tokyo, for a workshop. The classroom was a vinyl greenhouse. "I'm going to teach you scientific techniques for organic farming," said the lecturer, consultant Masaaki Koiwai, who crisscrosses the country touting organic agriculture as a way to improve yields and quality.

Japanese farmers learn the tricks of the organic trade from consultant Masaaki Koiwai in Chiba, near Tokyo. (Photo by Yukinori Okamura)

There is a tendency to assume that farmers -- particularly organic farmers -- rely on intuition developed over years of experience. But Koiwai assured his students it does not have to be that way. He talked about spinach farmers who had taken his advice. The spinach they produced had higher sugar content than a melon. How was this possible? They sprinkled a little something extra on the field: powdered bamboo, which happens to be full of carbohydrates.

Koiwai's approach centers on the idea of "complementing photosynthesis." The conventional wisdom used to be that plants absorb only inorganic substances, but recent studies have shown they can also take in organic ones with much larger molecular structures. Based on this, Koiwai argues that effective use of organic fertilizers can pay dividends. Even if extreme weather slows carbohydrate production, for instance, plants can continue to grow steadily if they can soak up the nutrients through their roots.

Farmers at Masaaki Koiwai's lecture on organic techniques (Photo by Yukinori Okamura)

A company that analyzes vegetables found that Koiwai-taught farmers tended to produce crops with much more sugar and vitamin C than average. There was no significant difference, however, between vegetables from other organic farmers and ones grown with chemical fertilizers. This suggests organic farming is only as good as the science behind it.

Over in Indonesia, a startup called iGrow is giving even city dwellers the opportunity to get into organic farming. The company pitches its concept as "playing FarmVille in real life," referring to a popular online game. The service allows customers to invest in small organic farms, choosing what they want to grow and where they want to grow it.

As of August, iGrow said it had partnered with 2,000 farmers and 7,000 small-scale investors, who invest anywhere from $110 to $1,100 each. The operation is cultivating more than 1,000 hectares of land, a third of which has already produced harvests. The founders said they are exploring expansion outside Indonesia, and mentioned Turkey and Japan as possibilities.

There is no denying that Asia faces huge agricultural challenges. But there is reason for optimism, too.

Big companies outside the region also see opportunity in meeting Asia's agricultural needs. Bayer, the German chemical and pharmaceutical maker, is developing new agrochemicals for rice and is looking to create tailored products for Asia, such as flood-resistant rice strains.

A mix of cooperation and competition between governments, corporations, startups and investors may just be a recipe for agricultural sustainability.

Nikkei staff writers Justina Lee in Singapore, Erwida Maulia in Jakarta, Kim Dung Tong in Ho Chi Minh City and Cliff Venzon in Manila contributed to this article.

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