‘Disruptive technologies’ transform Asian agriculture

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Innovations have brought about significant changes in agriculture. Copyright: Mitr Phol/IBM Research, CC BY-ND 2.0. This image has been cropped.

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  • Innovative technologies, such as plant genetics, have transformed agriculture
  • New practices involving sensors and robotics will lead the next round of change in farming
  • Asia will gain from these but a divide between rich and poor countries could develop

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[SINGAPORE] Agriculture has historically depended on disruptive discoveries and innovations to make big strides.
In the 20th century, four innovations brought about change in agriculture: genetics (seeds), mechanisation, fertilisers and pesticides. These four innovations allowed more food, feed and fibre to be produced from less and less land. These innovations disrupted the status quo and created immense benefit to farmers and consumers.
They fit what Clayton Christensen, a professor at the Harvard Business School, described in 1997 as a “disruptive technology” (DT) – one that displaces an established technology and shakes up the industry or a ground-breaking product that creates a completely new industry. 

“In the 20th century, four innovations brought about change in agriculture: genetics (seeds), mechanisation, fertilisers and pesticides. These four innovations allowed more food, feed and fibre to be produced from less and less land. These innovations disrupted the status quo and created immense benefit to farmers and consumer”

Paul S. Teng, Nanyang Technological University

With the re-discovery of Mendel’s laws of genetic inheritance, modern plant breeding had a scientific and empirical basis, and started to produce new crop varieties with higher potential yield in the 20th century and hybrid seeds became the major driver of increase in maize yield in the US. Indeed, maize yield increased seven-fold between 1940 to 2000 because of hybrid technology and enabled the world to have increased animal feed to meet the growing demands for animal protein especially in Asia. Hybrid maize may be considered as one of the first disruptive technologies in modern agriculture.
Innovation spurs green revolution
Asian agriculture faces many challenges that lend themselves to technological solutions. Food demand-side challenges are those that are linked to population growth, urbanisation and demographic change and shifting diets. Supply-side challenges are related to labour (ageing farmers, rural to urban migration), capital (increased uncertainties and reduced access), natural resources (reduced freshwater supplies, reduced arable land, climate change phenomena like severe weather events, droughts and floods) and technology (appropriateness, technology divide).
While political and social solutions meet some of these challenges, experts generally agree that innovations, such as improved seed of new crop varieties, offer much potential. A perfect example of this is first “Green Revolution” which in the 1960s saw many large Asian countries increase yields with new rice and wheat varieties and agricultural inputs. China and India staved off mass starvation. If not for the positive impact of these disruptive innovations, Asia would not have had the food security necessary for economic development.
Admittedly, there have been instances where “Green Revolution” technologies have been over-zealously applied, resulting in over-use of pesticides and fertilisers, affecting the crop ecosystems they were supposed to benefit.  These happened in countries like Indonesia and the Philippines where over-use of insecticides in the 1980s and 1990s led to massive outbreaks of a rice pest, the brown planthopper (Nilaparvata lugens). Research led by the International Rice Research Institute and the Food and Agriculture Organization, however, developed solutions through ecology-based Integrated Pest Management.
Fourth industrial revolution
Agriculture is now strongly influenced by the so-called fourth Industrial Revolution digital technologies which started having an impact in the 2010s. The term “agtech,” or agricultural technology, has come to represent the milieu of exciting new technologies like drones, sensors and intelligent robots. These are joined by tools developed through “fintech” or financial technology to help farmers access credit and markets.
The new agtech is a set of powerful disruptive technologies that have already started to make a difference to small farmers in Asia. These include the following:

  • Agronomy and Agricultural Biotechnology to innovate inputs for crop and animal agriculture such as seeds, pest control, seeds with new genetics, microbiome and animal health
  • Mechanisation, robotics and equipment such as on-farm machinery, automation, drones guided by GPS or GIS systems, environmental sensors, and growing equipment
  • Farm management software, Internet of Things (IoT) systems with sensing and intervening – these include environmental, farming data capture devices, decision support software, big data analytics and miniaturised portable applications
  • Novel farming systems such as indoor farms, plant factories with controlled environment, aquaculture systems, and grow-out facilities for insects, algae and microbes

In countries like China, India and the Philippines, governments are already setting up access to the first disruptive technology in the form of digital agtech devices like sensors and drones for managing nutrition and pests in crops like wheat, maize and rice. Many of these are offered through young entrepreneurs to farmers as part of a consulting service to make profits and represent a form of “Smart Farming” in which up-to-date data on crop and environment are linked through IoT systems to provide timely action, an example of a positive impact from the so-called fourth Industrial Revolution.
In general, rice growers in favourable environments such as irrigated systems are among the first to benefit, with laggards in the marginal, rainfed farming areas.
A second disruptive technology is through biotechnology in the form of crop varieties developed using biotechnology, including genetic modification. Asia in 2018 grew 11 per cent of the world’s biotech (GM) crops, about 19 million hectares in nine countries. The crops are cotton, papaya, canola, maize, eggplant and sugarcane, benefiting millions of smallholders and in some cases, allowing crops to be grown in areas which hitherto had to be abandoned due to insect-pest pressure and the ineffectiveness of insecticides. Going forward, a new biotechnology called gene-editing is likely to have even greater impact.
Despite its documented benefits, Asian countries such as Japan and Korea are hesitant about planting biotech crops. These countries, however, import large quantities of GM produce for food, feed and processing while developing countries like Thailand and Malaysia import GM products but do not yet grow any GM crops.
Rise of indoor farming
A third disruptive technology has risen in response to urbanisation, climate change and increased demand by consumers to have vegetables grown close by – “Plant Factories with Artificial Light (or PFALs)” – which are essentially enclosed, environment-controlled greenhouses in which vegetables are grown in tiered trays. These plants grown indoors generally have no need to use insecticides and can produce many times more per unit area using LED lights.
In Asia, there were reportedly over 450 Plant Factories with Artificial Light as of 2016 and the number is growing in countries like China, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan. These will increase the FAO estimate of 20 per cent of food produced in urban areas.
However, Plant Factories with Artificial Light require large financial resources to set up and their produce is costlier than outdoor vegetables. The expectation, though, is that efficiency will improve and produce will become cheaper as the technology is scaled up.
Two other technologies that have potential to become disruptive technologies are alternative proteins (such as plant-based protein, cellular meat and insect protein), and blockchain technology that safeguards the integrity of food supply from farm to consumer. Blockchains are also spawning the development of techniques to quickly detect food fraud or guarantee food identity.
Many developing countries are already benefitting from disruptive technologies. However, many more are not even starting to use them, leaving much untapped potential to increase food production and promote entrepreneurship in Asia. 
Care has to be taken to see that no “technology divide” is created between farmers because of affordability, as had happened in the early days of the Green Revolution when poor farmers in unfavourable lands could not afford the price of inputs like new seeds and fertilisers.
Professor Paul S. Teng serves as Adjunct Senior Fellow (Food Security) in the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore, while serving as Dean and Managing Director of the National Institute of Education International Pte Ltd at NTU. He is also chair of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.

* This article was amended on 19 September 2019 to add the author's designation as chair of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications.