Tech revolution: Intense Chinese uptake of digitalisation, robotics propelling food, ag sector

By Nurul Ain Razali contact

- Last updated on GMT

China can be advantageous when utilising agtech due to its market size. © Getty Images
China can be advantageous when utilising agtech due to its market size. © Getty Images

Related tags: China, Future Food Asia Awards, ag tech, Robotics

The rapid adoption of digitalisation and robotics is making serious waves to amplify China’s status in the food and agtech sectors, claims a leading regional investment expert.

For example, China is now heavily dependent on drones to monitor and even conduct plant operations, such as spraying fertilisers and pesticides, said industry expert Isabelle Decitre.

“The most popular and trending in China is the use of drones. It has become commercial equipment for agriculture,”​ said Decitre, the CEO of ID Capital.

ID Capital, an investment and advisory firm, is the organiser of the annual Future Food Asia Awards​, which has acted as a springboard for agrifoodtech innovators.

The Red Dragon renaissance

The MD of ID Capital China, Steven Zhang, added that the rise of foodtech and agtech in China only began four to five years back despite having food traditions spanning thousands of years.

The ‘renaissance’ was driven by Western-style food service and retailing, which led to the introduction of supply chain and machine processing techniques. For instance, Chinese firms have invented robots to cook food in restaurants. The robots use raw materials and cook them at the touch of a button.

As for the ingredients, Zhang said new proteins, such as plant-based meat made with innovative ingredients, were only introduced about three years ago.

“However, this trend started 50 to 60 years ago in the Western world. There are machines that can cut, chop and freeze, and used by mega fast-food chains. The tech is more mature in the West. However, such Western food is easier to cook than Chinese food.

“There was no machine for Chinese-style food until four to five years back. We usually rely on human cooks and their experience. Today, robotics can replace them. This is the real definition of foodtech and robotics. It involves digitalisation, machines, innovative ingredients, IT and material tech,”​ said Zhang.

The amplification of tech use is also seen in agriculture, in which farmers use drones designed for agriculture and equipped with visual recognition technology.

For example, ag drones can survey hilly, high-altitude farmlands of Yunnan, Guangdong and Szechuan and adapt to various landscapes and climatic conditions when conducting surveillance.

Drones are used in Yunnan, a good place to grow vegetables like lettuce and fruits. The temperatures fluctuate between 25 and 30 degrees Celsius (between 77 and 86 degrees Fahrenheit), and farmlands are located at high altitudes, ranging from 100 to 2,000m from sea level, conducive to plant growth.

Another application is the spraying of pesticides on tall apple trees. The drones can be configured to spray the pesticides at the soil, trunk and branches, not just the crowns.

Chinese policy on land use has also evolved, Zhang added. Each smallholder farm ranges in size, from five ‘mu’ (a Chinese unit of measurement equalling 666 sqm or 0.06ha) to 10 ‘mu’. The chance to attain the scale of economies to implement agtech was too slim a few years back.

Nobody can own land still, but the government has implemented new policies on the rights to use land today. He said the rights are transferable, and using agtech is now possible.

The Red Dragon soars

Agtech and innovative technologies were born at least 10 years earlier in Israel, Australia, New Zealand, the UK, France, Poland, Holland and Austria. These countries may have mature technology, but they do not possess big markets, explained Zhang.

In contrast, China has more in common with South East Asia and India due to the prevalence of traditional agricultural practices, large agricultural population and small pieces of land for farming.

Despite such differences, China can be advantageous when utilising agtech, said Zhang. Its agtech market is much larger than South East Asia and India. Its egg, pork and poultry industries, for instance, are among the largest in the world and utilise smart tech​ like AI.

“This is the motivation for start-ups (to enter China). Ideally, start-ups should also attain support from bigger players or large-scale enterprises, such as state-owned farms. They have the motivation to use tech to improve efficiency, productivity and quality of products.

“Foreign companies come into China and increase the standard, technology and management of the farms. Over time, they attract consumers. Hence, tech start-ups which intend to grow must interact with the big players to produce solutions. Only the big players will know what kind of agtech will add value to the industry,”​ he said.

Building on that concept, Zhang has created a network of 50 tech start-up entrepreneurs via WeChat to share industry knowledge, document trends and assist one another in collaborations. Overall, he aims to bring China into the APAC food system, which can be done via ID Capital and its initiatives like the FFAA.

A taste of FFA

According to ID Capital, APAC’s agriculture, food and technology businesses attracted over USD$7bn in funding during the first half of 2021.

Since its inception, FFAA​ has empowered over 60 APAC start-ups to present their cutting-edge innovations and distributed more than US$1m in awards.

This year, ten finalists out of 165 participants will compete for the grand prize of USD$100,000. The previous edition in 2021 only had around 130 participants.

The firm will also stage a conference in June, where FoodNavigator-Asia.com​ is a media partner.

“There is a huge knowledge gap between the industry and the technology. The conference will have a nice blend of investors, corporate figures and entrepreneurs, who need one another,”​ said Decitre.

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