The current global population of 7.8 billion is projected to reach over 9 billion by 2050, raising concerns about the environment, development and food security. As demand for food increases, the agriculture and food sector is facing multiple challenges. For instance, in agriculture production, the availability of natural resources such as fresh water and productive arable land is becoming increasingly constrained. Furthermore, the world faces intersecting challenges including climate change, poverty, hunger and malnutrition, food waste and changing diets. Nevertheless, the agricultural sector remains crucial for livelihoods and employment. To achieve a sustainable food future, the world should increase food production, maintain (or reduce) the land used for agriculture, protect and restore natural ecosystems and reduce greenhouse gases emissions. Digital agriculture has the potential to revolutionise agriculture and establish a more efficient, equitable and sustainable agricultural value chain, which provides significant benefits for farmers and the society. In recent years, China has made great efforts to integrate IT technologies with agricultural development, accelerate the use of e-commerce and promote informatisation in rural areas.
China accounts for less than 10% of the arable land in the world, while feeding 22% of the global population. The country is also the largest producer of many crops, such as rice, wheat, cotton, potatoes and other vegetables. With a rapidly growing population, shrinking arable land and accelerating urbanisation, China is encountering more and more challenges in agriculture. Hence, digital agriculture could serve as a powerful tool in achieving the goal of reducing input and improving production efficiency and the quality of agricultural products. The Chinese government has released several plans to support digital agricultural and rural development, issuing the “Digital Agriculture and Rural Area Development Plan 2019-2025,” which aims to drive agriculture forward with the application of big data and artificial intelligence. According to the development plan, the share of digital agriculture should account for 15% of all added value in agriculture by 2025, compared to 7.3% in 2018. Additionally, the proportion of agricultural products sold online should hit 15% and internet access should increase from 38.4% (in 2018) up to 70% of rural areas by 2050. China has also been promoting e-commerce in rural areas as part of a poverty alleviation drive.
Agricultural products are highly perishable and poorly standardised, and agriculture in China usually operates on a small scale without proper planning. There is also a need for rural communities to access larger markets, make more orders, have more transparent interaction with consumers and robust demand estimates for decision making regarding planting. With e-commerce, many of these issues could be addressed. E-commerce has created more job opportunities in rural areas, opened new markets for rural businesses and transformed traditional agricultural models.
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At the beginning of 2020, Chinese authorities released a pilot project plan on digital villages in order to promote and accelerate the application of optical-fiber wideband, mobile internet, digital TV network and next-generation internet in rural areas. Additionally, China has the world’s largest online population (903 million people) with over 99% of them using mobile phones to go online. With mobile internet, more farmers in rural areas can become e-commerce entrepreneurs.
For instance, according to an article published by the World Economic Forum, Chinese fruit farmers used to sit and wait for buyers at the roadside, but nowadays fewer motorists stop to buy because most traffic has shifted to newly built motorways, resulting in farmers dumping rotten fruit. Therefore, when there are available second hand electronic gadgets with basic internet connection, rural farmers can turn into global retailers. Several e-commerce platforms such as Alibaba and Pinduoduo with social media messaging and payment infrastructure are created to help farmers bring rural products to cities, connect directly with merchants and consumers and handle larger orders.
There is also an increasing trend of farmers selling fresh local products online via video streaming, especially during the coronavirus pandemic. As the pandemic has made it difficult for many farmers to sell their products in terms of transportation organisation, some of China’s major e-commerce sites have launched their own user-friendly programmes in order to help the farmers boost their sales. Additionally, live streaming as an instant and interactive tool is able to help Chinese consumers discover locally produced products from rural villagers and farmers. On the other hand, since the pandemic has disrupted the traditional supply chains across the country, many Chinese farmers now use their smartphones to shop online for vital farming products and equipment, including seeds, fertilisers and sprinklers. Cheaper prices and fast delivery also account for more online purchases.
Moreover, the author of the World Economic Forum article suggests that digital technologies have the ability to transform agricultural industry models and increase profits. Farmers in China can get access to e-commerce platforms, such as Pinduoduo, which uses artificial intelligence to aggregate user interests and generate large volume orders for agricultural products. With the help of these platforms, farmers can adjust their production and sales plans accordingly, and can sell their products directly to consumers without going through layers of distributors, thereby improving the overall supply chain efficiency and reducing distribution costs. In the long run, farmers can earn more profit.
Although China’s digital agriculture is rapidly developing, there is still a need for more improvements in areas like future internet penetration in remote areas, as well as financial and organisational support from the government.
Featured image by: Flickr