In May 2020, China Agricultural University and Chinese e-commerce platform Pinduoduo hosted a "smart agriculture competition". Three teams of top strawberry growers, the traditional teams, and four teams of scientific AI experts, the technology teams, took part in a strawberry-growing competition in the province of Yunnan, China, billed as an agricultural version of the historical match between a human Go player and Google’s DeepMind AI.
At the beginning, the traditional teams were expected to draw best practices from their collective planting and agricultural experience. And they did for a while. They led in efficient production for a few months before the technology teams gradually caught up, employing internet-enabled devices such as intelligent sensors, data analysis and fully digital greenhouse automation.
This human-versus-machine strawberry contest illustrates that the traditional farming industry has tremendous room for a digital transformation – the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) for agriculture. With nearly 10 billion people predicted to be living on Earth by 2050, about 3 billion more mouths to feed than there were in 2010, the need to make progress is becoming urgent. The challenge is highlighted by the coronavirus pandemic, which put the global food system through severe stress, disrupting regular supply chains.
In China, the agricultural industry is characterized by small farms and low digitization, making it difficult to achieve standardization and economies of scale. Furthermore, the industry also faces the problem of an ageing and dwindling farming workforce. That explains Chinese government’s plans to pilot a “digital village” at the beginning of 2020.