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Innovation needs to take root to meet globe's food challenges

By LIA ZHU | China Daily | Updated: 2019-01-21 09:21

Seth Swanson, plant cultivation and research manager at AEssenseGrows, checks plants in the company's labs. LIA ZHU/CHINA DAILY

Technology may provide answers to tackle shortages

Like smart cities, China needs to adopt technology, like sensors, AI and robotics, to change farms into smart farms in order to tackle food challenges, a Silicon Valley-based agricultural-tech expert said.

"Labor and water shortages, combined with increasing needs for food security and food safety, are driving the demand for innovation in food and agriculture in China," said John Hartnett, founder and CEO of investment and advisory firm SVG Partners.

Vertical and precision farming, and robotics and automation could help the sector in China, said Hartnett, also a member of the expert committee of China's first national-level agricultural innovation center in Nanjing.

The digital transformation that is happening today in agriculture can help growers manage farms more efficiently and provide prescriptive information, he said.

By 2050 the world's population is expected to increase from 7.3 billion to around 10 billion, according to a report by the United Nations' Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

"That's forcing farmers and agriculture companies to produce 70 percent more than what they produce today," said Hartnett. "If we have to produce more food, the only real solution is innovation and changing how food is produced and brought to market."

In addition, the changing needs of millennials and the growing middle class in China drives demand for fresh food and proteins, so the technology that can ensure the quality and safety of food are going to play a key role, he said.

AEssenseGrows, a Silicon Valley agricultural-tech company, is trying to solve the needs for higher growth yields, food safety and conservation of resources with their aeroponic (soil-free) systems.

The company's sensor-controlled and software-managed platforms allow the roots to extend only in air and a nutrient mix, called the recipe, is directly sprayed on the roots.

"The system can accelerate plant growth with intelligent sensors that collect, create, and monitor nutrient recipe progress," said Robert Chen, president and CEO of AEssenseGrows. "We can harvest lettuce in just 12 days after it is planted," he said.

The system also enjoys advantages in significant savings in water usage, no pesticides, no soil disposal and minimal labor cost, said Chen.

Since it was established in 2014, AEssenseGrows has made China a major market. It now has an indoor plant factory in Shanghai, with products ranging from vegetable and flowers to medicinal herbs.

"It (the system) especially meets the urban residents' needs for fresh and safety food, because the facilities can be built near consumers, offering faster delivery while eliminating transportation cost," he said.

The aeroponic system is also a good fit for areas with scarce water resources and cheap power supplies, such as Norwest China, said Chen.

He admitted that the cost of the system was expensive now, but he believed it will go down in the future as the technology is widely deployed. "I think greenhouse farming is a transition. The future will be vertical farming," he added.

Food safety poses a global challenge, not only in China but in the United States, too, said Hartnett. He used the E. coli outbreak in romaine lettuce for an example. The outbreaks sickened dozens of people in different states last year.

Hartnett also sees opportunities in those challenges. He has been running an accelerator program called "Thrive" in Silicon Valley for five years, helping agriculture and food-tech startups to deploy their technologies and improve business.

He said he is helping build a bridge between Silicon Valley and the Nanjing agriculture innovation park. "I see two-way opportunities. It's win-win situation for both sides," he added.

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