When Peng Bin traveled through China’s northwestern region a decade ago, he saw wizened farm laborers spraying pesticide from heavy tanks strapped to their backs, with little in the way of protection from the pungent chemicals.
That was when the founder and CEO of Guangzhou-based drone maker XAG had an epiphany. Instead of producing recreational drones for amateur enthusiasts to take holiday video and photos, XAG would devote itself to agriculture to help China’s dwindling and aging farm laborers lessen their burden and increase productivity.
That decision 10 years ago has led to XAG today, occupying the position as a leading purveyor of agricultural drones and unmanned farm technology, not just in China but in 42 countries and regions in total.
“I often give examples to my colleagues and friends that the image of agriculture in the future is definitely not farmers working with hoes and sickles,” Peng said in a recent interview with CGTN. “It will be various robots deployed to the farmland, taking care of the crops, while humans monitor and maintain these robots.”
This vision of smart agriculture in China is being put into practice with the setting up of unmanned farms and high-tech greenhouses in various regions. Yet, the path that China must take will differ from other countries such as the US because of geography, Peng said.
Automation will help reduce the physical burden of farming on an aging farming population. The average age of farmers in China reached 53 years, with 34% over 55 years old. Bent backs are less of an issue if the manual work is being done by robots.
China is a vast country with different landforms, from the wet tropical south to the arid, desert-fringed north. Yet, it has managed to feed nearly one-fifth of the world population with 9 percent of the world’s arable and 6 percent of freshwater resources. The ultimate solution to safeguarding food security lies in enhancing science and technology, Chinese President Xi Jinping said in remarks to delegates of the annual legislative meeting in Beijing.
XAG is among the growing number of companies that are devoting themselves or branching out into agricultural sciences and research and development. E-commerce platforms including Pinduoduo have sought to promote the digitization of agriculture by training entrepreneurs to set up online businesses and help their communities.
For Peng, the future of agriculture is going towards more brains, less brawn.
“Intelligent equipment can better assist farmers when farmlands are concentrated. The drone is a classic example,” said Peng. “A single drone could have thousands of acres of service efficiency per day working on concentrated farmland.”
“Automated tools surely have better efficiency than humans, and can generate more profit. If we can achieve that, we can have greater yield to ensure food security even with a decrease in cultivated area,” he said.
As to how to encourage smart agriculture in China, Peng suggested getting young people interested in farming, specifically high-tech farming as “we can see clearly that young people don’t know what agriculture looks like today.”
China can also adjust its definition of what constitutes “high-standard farmland” to include factors such as the ability to obtain data to make farming easier. This will make the adoption of agricultural technology more attractive to farmers and farming cooperatives.