Time To Modernise The Agricultural Sector For Food Security

By Head of Science & Technology at EMIR Research, Ameen Kamal

A recent site visit to a chilli and rock melon farm in Banting, Selangor – part of the Malaysian Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC) Digital Agtech initiative’s pilot project – demonstrated a good example of the combined implementation of 4IR and digital technologies that MDEC has been championing for the nation.

In collaboration with the Kuala Langat Area Farmers Organisation (PPK Kuala Langat) and Bank Pembangunan, these pilot farms have been fitted with 4IR technologies such as digital sensors, remote monitoring and management through automation which translates into a consistent precision farming with great yields and compelling financial returns. 

MDEC’s Digital Agtech is helping to catalyse and drive the modernisation of the agricultural sector in Malaysia. Results of the pilot farms showed potential application of similar technologies to the entire agricultural sector in Malaysia, covering both food crops and industrial crops.

The chilli farms used smart sensors embedded in each chilli plant polybags to detect temperature and humidity, providing information on when and how much water is needed. The information can all be monitored remotely. Also, it uses precise control of fertigation, which combines fertilisation and irrigation. Based on the data from the sensors, which can also measure pH of the medium and fertiliser concentration, specific quantities of nutrients are solubilised using pumps in a mixing tank, which are then pumped through small pipes that drips at each polybag.

This is an automated fertigation using drip irrigation technique, which is a form of precision farming that leads to more efficient use of water and fertilizers. Drip irrigation typically applies water and fertilisers below the leaf and just above the soil to reduce loss of water via evaporation and ensure optimum nutrient uptake.

Pesticides (if need be) are also applied using automated sprayers that move throughout the farm on specially designed rails. This was reported to contribute to greater efficiency, where the entire two-acre plot can be covered in about three minutes, when it would’ve have taken up to 90 minutes using manual labour.

The combined precise automated fertigation and fertiliser application was reported to reduce the required man-power to only two permanent staff for a two-acre plot, and would benefit from higher economies of scale. For example, a 10-acre plot would need between three to four people.

Precision and consistent farming impact on overall operational and cost efficiency leads to better nutrient uptake, better yields, and therefore, financial returns. The farm managers reported that chilli grades have shifted to about 90 percent grade A chillies where previous traditional process yields only about 25 percent. The remaining are grade B chillies, with no grade C being produced.

The huge quality jump helps drive up the revenue due to higher prices of higher-grade chillies. In fact, the capital outlay for the digital technology and automation of only about RM 50,000 ringgit per acre of land was reported to have a payback period of only one to three years, depending on prices and harvest quantities. Minimum scale could be between half to one acre, though bigger plots of land would have better economies of scale, and therefore, better returns.

In the field of agriculture, consistency of supply is more important that quality for long term supply contracts. The pilot chilli farm is not only precisely-managed, but also consistent in its output. The farm was reported to have sealed supply agreements with various parties, including a renowned food manufacturing company for the production of chilli sauce.

A supply deal with a buyer, on top of the significantly improved financial returns are some of the strongest convincing factors for funders such as investors and banks, which would in turn allow these producers access to larger funding for scale up and upgrades.

Similar technology application was seen at another pilot plot at the rock melon farm, where characteristics of the rock melons could be “controlled” to produce a certain size and sweetness.

The results from MDEC’s Digital Agtech pilot projects have showcased the viability of digital technologies and automation in agriculture. However, there is room for even more technological improvement. We can go beyond Industry 4.0’s version of agtech, and into “agtech 5.0” which is also envisioned under Malaysia 5.0, inspired after Japan’s Society 5.0.

The “Big Data” generated from the sensors (Internet-of-things or IoT application in agriculture) can perhaps be combined with meteorological data, whereby the information could help in not only precision farming, but also predictive management that could help better manage inventories and supply chains.

Such analysis could be taken up by artificial intelligence (AI), and by expanding the Big Data with market information (supply and demand), the entire precision and efficient farming could be improved further through even more automated operations (mechanisation, robotics), surveillance (drones, satellites) and autonomous decision-making (AI).

For more remote areas with lesser resources, use of low-powered wide-area IoT (such as Narrowband IoT, or NB-IoT) could be considered. Operating in a narrow bandwidth (as the name implies), it is considered an energy-efficient IoT system, great for sensors and systems communications, especially in rural areas.

Researchers Verónica Saiz-Rubio and Francisco Rovira-Más from the Agricultural Robotics Laboratory (ARL) of the Polytechnic University of Valencia in Spain, mentioned how modern data-driven agriculture technology that is available today can be both a sustainable and profitable way to provide food for the people while minimising environmental impact.

In the near future, innovative fintech and trading platform such as blockchain-based peer-to-peer (p2p) market platform may be considered to support small farmers by minimising the role of the middle-man (if not cut out entirely) and ensure best prices for the consumers, and better margins for the farmers.

Technology has made agriculture a “high-tech” industry, with financial prospects that could attract younger entrepreneurs from the more tech-savvy generation. In light of the unemployment and underemployment situation in Malaysia, this is a viable prospect to be explore by Malaysian graduates, especially when more funders jump on the bandwagon to provide easier and cheaper access to capital.

Chilli is a good start, given that it is also a crop that is very reliant on imports. It’s self-sufficiency level (SSL) dropped from 65.5 percent in 2013 to 31.9 percent in 2018 based on data from the Department of Statistics Malaysia, despite being a common ingredient in Malaysian food.

Similar technologies should be applied to other crops in Malaysia, particularly paddy. Despite a major rice consumer, Malaysia is only producing roughly 70 percent of the total demand internally, while the remaining are imported. In fact, its SSL dropped slightly from 70 percent in 2018, to 69 percent in 2019. A global crisis such as Covid-19 outbreak has shown Malaysia’s vulnerability in food security when trade activities are halted, depriving Malaysia from its staple food.

Eleventh Malaysia Plan (2016–2020) has actually targeted for 100 percent SSL for rice, but reports appear to indicate that the 12th Malaysia plan is targeting 75 percent, which appears to revert back closer to previous levels. If this reflects limitations of current capabilities (in addition to demand for rice varieties not found locally), then technology could be the way to breach the production ceiling.

It was reported in New Straits Times that Datuk Dr M Nasir Shamsudin, professor at Universiti Putra Malaysia’s department of agribusiness and bioresource economics, pointed to how food production which includes crops, livestock and fishery are still net imported goods worth around RM18 billion annually.

According to the Department of Statistics Malaysia, the total food imports for 2019 is excess of RM 51 billion, and jumped to RM 55 billion in 2020. To give an idea on the growth rate, the value was reported to be about RM 43 billion in 2013.

Thus, in addition to transcending the current notion of food sufficiency (achieved via imports supplementation) to actual self-sufficiency (for obvious national food security reasons), there is existing and sizeable captive market with an upward trend to be capitalised on, and technological advancement is the way forward.

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