A competition that may revise the future of smart agriculture recently took place in China. In July, Pinduoduo, China’s largest agricultural innovation platform, invited four AI research teams and four proficient farmers to participate in a strawberry planting competition. The Smart Agriculture Competition organized by Pinduoduo aims to raise agricultural productivity and increase food security.
The result was not surprising; the technology teams had advantages in temperature and humidity control. They were also more precise at controlling the use of water and nutrients. On the other hand, traditional farmers had to achieve the same task by hand and years of experience. In the end, the AI teams, which incorporated data analysis, intelligent sensors, and greenhouse automation, produced an average of 6.86 kg of strawberries, whereas the traditional farmers grew 2.32 kg. The AI teams also outperformed farmers in terms of return on investment by an average of 75.5%, according to the event organizers.
The four-month competition was co-organized by Pinduoduo and China Agricultural University, with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations as a technical adviser. This contest was the first cross-disciplinary smart agriculture competition in China to develop planting methods to raise productivity and yield.
One of the four AI teams, Zhi Duo Mei, became the first group out of the contest to commercialize their technology as local farmers sought the team’s help to improve their agricultural yield. The team’s automation technology showed a more than 60% increase in conventional output. Zhi Duo Mei plans to serve 1,000 mu (165 acres) of strawberry-growing plots in Yunnan, China this year, expanding to 10,000 mu next year.
Cheng Biao, the Zhi Duo Mei team leader, told Pandaily that the ultimate AI planting mechanism will not replace the human workforce, but liberate them from repeated work so they can better focus on management-level jobs.
“In agriculture, traditional farmers distrust data scientists, thinking they are flashy yet useless; data scientists also look down on farmers, thinking they are too old-fashioned,” said Cheng. “AI cannot live without human beings, so we are looking for a way to combine traditional farming and smart agriculture.”
Pinduoduo’s move into smart agriculture is part of the firm’s goal to digitalize agriculture resources and improve their productivity. From production to transportation and sales, Pinduoduo is digitalizing the entire value chain.
Precision farming technology can help improve crops on the production side, while agriculture analytics can cut food waste by reducing mismatches in supply and demand. For farmers, e-commerce platforms allow them to expand their market size without the constraints of geography.
The use of technology in agriculture also aids the formation of Stock Keeping Unit (SKU) for traditional farmers. “SKU is often related to standardization. However, many traditional farmers’ local produce may not be considered ‘standardized’ from a consumer’s perspective. As such, we are using technology to meet consumers’ demands,” said Cheng.
“Technology is the force multiplier that helps both the people who grow the food and the people who eat it,” said Andre Zhu, senior vice president of Pinduoduo. “Investing in agriculture benefits the greatest number of people. We are happy to play the role of matchmaker and enabler.”