The Future of Food is Digital

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COVID-19 HAS BEEN putting some strain on Penang’s food supply. Although the state managed well on the whole, this challenge should serve as a stark reminder and fair warning of a repeat occurrence if the state’s agriculture production remains unsupported by IT and communications technology. The path for the agriculture sector to take is clear.

What we have also learned in recent years is that higher crop yields and product quality does not contradict environmental protection. The two actually go well together. Most encouragingly, Germany’s smart farms have been reporting higher productivity levels alongside a reduction in excess reactive nitrogen compounds in the soil, and a decrease in herbicide and fuel use by 10% and 20% respectively (Adam, 2016).

In Penang agro-food development is mapped out in the strategic initiative B2 of vision Penang2030: to modernise and diversify sustainable agriculture. Though still in its nascent stage, this management concept has shown great potential in the state’s two high-yield sectors: aquaculture and rice production.

The last few years saw a host of new technologies and methods introduced to smallholding and traditional farmers, along with funding and incentive schemes for technology development, infrastructure maintenance and for agricultural inputs. Also launched are agricultural programmes, among which are the Permanent Food Production Park and Aquaculture Industrial Zones.

The state’s agriculture sector focuses on sustainable agriculture production, urban and community farming, high-tech food production, and food preservation and packaging technologies. Within the agricultural and agribusiness ecosystem, there are currently three major innovation fields in which start-ups, cross-industry innovators and researchers are increasingly active.

Aerial view of a paddy field.

These are crop efficiency, vertical farming and agri-food e-commerce (Table 1).

1. Crop Efficiency

Crop efficiency technologies have demonstrated an increase in productivity with decreased input; and excitingly, their application is growing in Penang.

According to the state’s Department of Agriculture (DOA), the crop management system for rice production integrates in one database the use of Geographic Information System (GIS), a remote sensing technology, and Information and Communication Technology (ICT), to monitor paddy field proficiency and determine yield variability. This database combines the latest high-resolution satellite images with administrative boundary information, irrigation schemes, paddy field information and rice lots. This includes map information for each paddy lot, e.g. lot number, class (paddy and non-paddy), acreage of cultivated area, yield and information on the farmer.

The potential for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is well-recognised in smart farming. This is seen most obviously in paddy planting and oil palm plantations where decision-making and assessments on risk management now include input from drones. These UAVs are also used to spray crops, conduct soil and field analysis, and to monitor the farm; and for the long term, this technology is able to save on cost, decrease labour dependency, boost farm productivity, enhance yield and increase farm sustainability. To encourage the adoption of agrotech, the DOA provides farmers with drone equipment. About 30 drones are currently in use for precision agriculture activities such as fertilisation and pest/disease control.

Table 1: Major Innovation Fields in Agriculture in Penang



The social enterprise Kairos Agriculture is another successful example of smart farming. Located in Seberang Perai, it is the country’s first smart vanilla farm, using agriculture 4.0 technologies such as big data, AI, IoT, machine learning and drones. Its automatic irrigation system monitors and controls temperature and humidity to ensure ideal growing conditions for the vanilla plants; while its machine learning system is used to monitor conditions of the cultivated land and surrounding areas. The farm also adopts a chemical-free soil-based planting system and energy-saving smart technology to benefit the environment.

For those interested in planting vanilla at home, Kairos Agriculture has created a portable vanilla module. CEO Ezra Tan Koon Hock explains, “It is a step-by-step training guide in seeding, fertilising and planting for those who would like to know more about vanilla planting.” A social entrepreneur training hub is also in the pipeline, reveals Tan. The project hopes to attract youth agropreneurs to fill skills gaps in the agriculture sector.

Kairos Agriculture uses technologies such as big data, AI, IoT, machine learning and drones in farming vanilla. Photo: Kairos Agriculture

The company has also partnered with PwD Smart Farmability to develop the World's First Organic Vegetable Terrarium for households and communities to grow their own vegetables easily in an enclosed terrarium that is designed to self-sustain. Minimal watering is required, and the soil is nutrient-dense and 100% protected from pests and diseases.

There has been progress, no doubt, but Tan says that challenges still persist, mainly in the cost of technology, infrastructure and internet connection and data availability – the last of which is essential if Penang is indeed serious about expanding its smart farming initiative. “In terms of research and development, we work closely with Universiti Sains Malaysia on increasing the quality and quantity of vanilla and to further develop smart farming technology strategies.”

Malaysia's first smart vanilla farm. Here CEO Ezra Tan Koon Hock of Kairos Agriculture poses proudly with his team. Photo: Kairos Agriculture

2. Vertical Farming

Penang relies heavily on food imports, and this high dependency renders the state extremely vulnerable to fluctuations in food supply and prices, as well as to food safety issues. Vertical farming is a promising alternative, especially in regard to imported greens. This farming practice benefits both local producers and consumers with its potential to significantly increase food production while minimising the agriculture sector’s environmental footprint. This is achieved by reducing the use of land, water, chemical and fertiliser, as well as increasing overall efficiency.

Founder and CEO of VictoryFarm@ Rooftop Malaysia Gary Law. Photo: VictoryFarm@Rooftop Malaysia

VictoryFarm@Rooftop Malaysia (VFARM) in Penang specialises in rooftop vertical farming. Besides producing vegetables, the company supplies Vertical Farming System Residential Models to home-users who are keen to vertically grow their own produce. Only 1 sq ft of space is needed to grow up to 60 plants per tower! VFARM also constructs vertical farms with greenhouse for commercial owners who are ambitious enough to plant 10,000 crops in a 1,200 sq ft space.

In 2019 the company innovated VGROW TOWER, the first home vertical plug and grow system; and a year later, the VGROW PLANTER, Malaysia’s first vertigation (Vertical Fertigation) system. “We integrate IoT with vertical farming through semi-automation and data collection to increase production and quality,” explains founder and CEO Gary Law.

Be that as it may, Penang has barely scratched the surface of agrotech innovations. Presently, only less than 1% of existing vertical farming technologies are being capitalised upon. Comfortingly, opportunities can still be seized for the proactive planning of vertically farmed vegetables, herbs and certain fruit types, and to achieve self-sufficiency. “Vertical farming technology can be used as an ‘iconic’ attraction for AgroTourism, via AgroPark. This may bring in more investors to generate income for the state,” Law suggests.

3. Agri-food e-commerce

The days have passed when farmers had to go through middlemen. In fact, farmers are now competing directly with them. But the initial MCO period threw them a number of logistical curveballs; agricultural services slowed to a trickle and farmers, especially smallholders, were prevented from getting their produce to the markets, which resulted in much food spoilage and severe income losses.

The VGROW TOWER, the first home vertical plug and grow system, was created in 2019. Photo: VictoryFarm@Rooftop Malaysia

Photo: victoryfarmatrooftop.com

The agri-food e-commerce is one strategy designed to assist farmers, from managing their businesses better and ensuring access to the markets, to keeping tabs on market prices. The online marketing platform Agrobazaar Online run by the Federal Agricultural Marketing Authority is one such example of channels being opened up for farmers and SMEs to sell produce and products directly to consumers.

This form of e-commerce is rapidly growing in Malaysia, but its application remains low among Penang’s farmers. A couple of factors contribute to this:

  1. Malaysia’s agriculture sector is still viewed as a traditional industry; and
  2. Most farmers in Penang are relatively elderly and may be resistant to adopting digital technology or even, applying new farming methods. It may therefore be more prudent to target the next generation of farmers instead, since it is they who stand to benefit the most.

Penang has barely scratched the surface of agrotech innovations. Presently, only less than 1% of existing vertical farming technologies are being capitalised upon.

Digital technology is costly to implement, and is best suited for large-scale producers. Without subsidies or other forms of aid, smallholders are surely to be left behind. Broadband infrastructure is also a highly pertinent issue to discuss. In many rural areas, the telecommunication infrastructure is badly wanting; it is limited in receiving mobile signal and landline internet connections, both of which are prerequisites for digitisation. Upgrades cannot be avoided for much longer if data flow, e.g. network coverage and transmission rates are to be capitalised on for the digitalisation of farming.

Lastly, a weakness for Penang is the availability and quality of its data collection. Smart farming systems rely on data generated on-farm in local-specific contexts. This requires web-based data platforms and big data analyses.

Moving Forward

Agriculture 4.0 is the future, and for farming technologies to root themselves firmly in Penang, gaps in digital literacy must first be addressed. In navigating the digital terrain, the local farming communities, with support from public institutions and industry actors, are able to connect and access knowledge banks, networks and institutions for the sharing of models, methodologies, good practices and the adoption of open access and interoperability standards.

Likewise, an equitable information flow profits farmers, not only in knowledge enhancement but to encourage fair competition as well. For this to happen, farmers must be confident in taking the leap to innovate and by extension, broaden the potential for new business opportunities and models.

References

Adam, Ulrich. “‘Farming 4.0’ at the farm gates.” 23 May, 2016. EURACTIV. Retrieved from: https://www.euractiv.com/section/agriculture-food/opinion/farming-4-0-digital-technology-at-the-farm-gates/.  

Negin Vaghefi is a senior analyst at Penang Institute. She holds a Ph.D. in Environmental Economics. Her research interests include agri-environmental economics, climate change, green economics, poverty and income inequality, and policy analysis.



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