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May 2017: Agtech big in Japan

While this wasn’t my first visit to Japan, it was my first trip to discover more about Japanese agriculture. Ag/Sum, organised by Nikkei Inc, focused on agritech and how disruptive technology will play a growing role in agriculture, in Japan and beyond.

Japan is an ideal venue for an agtech conference. While it may not enjoy today the same reputation for new technology that it boasted back in the 1970s and 1980s, it’s a society that has long felt comfortable with the use of technology. Add to this the state of Japanese agriculture, where the average age of the Japanese farmer is 70 and the whole industry needs urgent reform. What’s more, the Japanese government knows it.

Ken_Saito_Agtech

“Agriculture is the industry with the greatest potential for improvement,” says Ken Saito, Japanese State Minister for Agriculture.

“Agriculture is the industry with the greatest potential for improvement,” believes Ken Saito, State Minister for Agriculture. He made a keynote speech to the conference. Previously an executive in industries ranging from steel to petroleum, he was no stranger to reform. Now he’s approaching the country’s agriculture with the same zeal. He says maintaining the status quo is the greatest risk to agriculture in Japan. The pursuit of innovation is the only way to save Japan’s agricultural sector. He wants to ensure that Japanese agriculture can feed the population. And with global demand for food expected to double in ten years, he believes the country has a moral duty to provide high quality produce to the world market.

Motivation

Saito believes Japanese farmers are highly motivated. They respond well to a challenge. Collaboration with other industries, promoting innovative technology, is central to his vision of a reformed farming sector. A forthcoming initiative includes establishing of a planning committee to further technology development, which he hopes will lead to a trickle-down effect of innovative technology to farmers on the ground.

“New technologies such as artificial intelligence, ICT and data analysis, and robotics, can help both alleviate the labour shortage and help to make farms more efficient, alongside other measures to advance agriculture,” he said. “Forums such as Ag/Sum provide a valuable space in which to break out innovative ideas and help begin a new policy direction, leading to new developments in the future of agriculture.”

Saito’s outline largely set the tone for the rest of the conference, which saw a panoply of speakers come forward to discuss not only the macro issues facing Japanese agriculture, but insight and inspiration into how entrepreneurs and technologists have generated and developed agtech solutions in other parts of the world. One of these was Agro Mavens client Connecterra, whose Intelligent Dairy Assistant (known as Ida), applies machine learning to sensor data (collected from cow collars) in a bid to run the world’s ‘most efficient dairy farm’.

Changing roles

“The role of the farmer is going to change,” said Connecterra CEO Yasir Khokhar, during one debate. “Right now farmers have fear and uncertainty about moving to a data-based economy. But we’re beginning to recognise the importance of training clever AI models. We’ll soon discover new solutions to problems that have plagued the industry for some time.

“As farmers grow more confident, they’ll progress from uncertainty to skilled technologist.”

For Agro Mavens, of course, there was more to the conference than just listening and pursuing our knowledge quest. We made some valuable contacts to strengthen the Agro Mavens knowledge and skills network. We also came away with a strong US client lead, with whom we expect to begin work during 2018.

AdrianBell

AdrianBell