Manit, who grows rice, orchids and fruit trees
on about 40 acres (16 hectares) of land in Ban Mai, is part of a community
enterprise that recently acquired a drone under a Thai government programme to
digitise agriculture.

Drones to plant seeds, and spray pesticide and
fertilisers are growing in popularity in the Southeast Asian country as it
grapples with a labour shortage that worsened during the coronavirus pandemic,
with restrictions on movement of workers.

“Labour is the biggest challenge for us –
it’s hard to get, and it’s expensive,” said Manit, 56, a leader of the Ban
Mai Community Rice Centre farm that comprises 57 members with nearly 400 acres
of land.

“With the drone, we not only save money
on labour, we can also be more precise. It’s faster and safer, as we are not
exposed to the chemicals, and it can help us deal with climate-change impacts
such as less rain more easily,” he said.

The Ban Mai community is part of a wider
transformation of agriculture in Asia Pacific, where artificial intelligence
(AI) and big data are powering smartphones, robots and drones to improve
farming techniques, boost crop yields and incomes.

The trend towards data-based precision
agriculture and other digital tools is being driven by demographic changes,
technological advances and climate change, according to the Food and
Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

“They help farmers produce more with less
water, land, inputs, energy and labour, while protecting biodiversity and
reducing carbon emissions,” the FAO said in a report at a regional
conference on digitalisation in agriculture this week.

“Farmers can optimise yields and obtain
major cost savings, enhanced efficiency, and more profitability,” it said.

But agricultural technology – or agri-tech –
also poses risks from job losses to social inequities and data governance
concerns. The technologies can be costly and hard to adopt, particularly for
women and older farmers, experts said.

“In India, there are far more pressing
concerns that the government should be paying attention to,” said Nachiket
Udupa with the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture.

“We’ve seen massive farmers’ protests in
India on issues like the minimum support price and lack of support from the
government. Drones are not the biggest issue for farmers,” he told the
Thomson Reuters Foundation.

MORE DEMOCRATIC

Worldwide, the rise of cloud computing and AI
technologies have popularised the use of big data in numerous applications in
agriculture – from irrigation controllers to services that capture and analyse
data on the soil, weather and crop yields.

Asia Pacific is one of the fastest growing
markets for digital farming information and marketplaces, fintech solutions,
and blockchain technologies for food traceability.

But smallholders in Asia largely use only
low-cost tools such as digital soil-testing kits and app-based or text-based
services for weather forecasting because of cost barriers, skills gaps and
regulatory bottlenecks, the FAO said.

Women too, face more constraints in accessing
technologies.

In India, the average size of a land holding
is less than 2 hectares, which does not lend itself to much mechanisation or
digitisation – which are also expensive for most farmers, said Udupa.

There are about 20 million farmers in India
who use some technology, a fraction of the nearly 500 million farmers in the country,
said M Haridas, co-founder of DataVal Analytics, that has an AI-based mobile
app to provide real-time crop analysis.

“Data makes farming more democratic –
even smallholders can access AI and machine learning to improve yields and
returns,” he said.

“The biggest challenges are the lack of
devices, lack of internet connectivity and lack of training,” he added.

To improve rural internet connectivity, the
FAO’s “digital villages” initiative has teamed up with tech firms
such as Microsoft and IBM in 1,000 sites worldwide, including in Nepal,
Bangladesh, Fiji, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Vietnam.

“The aim is to use technology to advance
and improve agriculture, nutrition, health and well-being of citizens,
especially rural populations,” said Sridhar Dharmapuri, a senior food
safety and nutrition officer at FAO, noting that this is particularly crucial
after disruptions from COVID-19.

“As 4G services expand and 5G services
are rolled out, the decreasing costs of smartphones and data are accelerating
the adoption of digital tools, including among small holders and family
farmers, therefore powering further inclusion” he added.

LURE YOUNGSTERS

Despite regulatory hurdles and land
fragmentation, the Asia-Pacific region is the fastest growing market for agricultural
drones, according to the FAO, driven by local providers, falling prices, and
rising labour costs.

Governments in the region are using drones,
with satellite imagery, for weather forecasts, disaster management and crop
insurance, as well as for monitoring and mapping crops strategic for food
security, mostly rice.

In India, so-called kisan drones, or farmer
drones, are to be used for crop damage assessment and digitisation of land
records, which risks excluding women and tillers who are typically not named in
land records, said Udupa.

“Land records are a mess in India – so
using drones won’t solve the issue,” he said.

“Drones are largely being pushed as a
means of greater mechanisation because there is a perception that farm labour
is getting relatively expensive. But for the average small or marginal farmers,
these technologies are simply unaffordable.”

In Thailand, the state digital economy
promotion agency has, since 2020, given individual farmers a 10,000-baht ($306)
grant for agri-tech, while community enterprises get a 300,000-baht grant.

In Ban Mai, a bright orange 10-litre
agriculture drone from the agency sits in a black carton, waiting to be used as
soon as some farmers get a licence to operate it.

In the meantime, the community has been hiring
a drone from one of its members, who bought a 30-litre drone with his savings
after battling constant labour shortages on his rice farm.

“A lot of people hire me to spray their
farms, because they see how efficient and cost-effective it is,” said
Sayan Thongthep, 52.

“I’m going to train my daughter also to
operate the drone – it’s a good way to get youngsters interested in
farming.”



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