Farms in the City: How a Chinese Firm Uses Tech to Boost Yield

Farms in the City: How a Chinese Firm Uses Tech to Boost Yield

By Feng Yilei

2018-12-01 08:01 GMT+8

Updated 2018-12-01 09:06 GMT+8

An appetite for clean, fresh greens is growing with the burgeoning population in Chinese cities and towns. But feeding the rising demand is a challenge, partly because of the country's massive shift from being an agrarian to urban economy.

In the next 15 years, over 200 million Chinese are expected to move from rural areas into urban and suburban environments. This will greatly reduce the labor force on China's arable lands, which some say calls for a revolution in farming methods in order to create sustainable food production.

Beijing COFCO wisdom farm. /COFCO Photo

Beijing COFCO wisdom farm. /COFCO Photo

In suburban Beijing, a number of plant factories built with innovative techniques have incorporated farming into urban growth.

Dr. Wei Lingling, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, said controlled environmental agriculture (CEA) aims to get the most output with the least resources at the highest efficiency. They use technology like artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT) to precisely control production.

On a small plot of indoor space, plants are rooted on layered shelves vertically and bathe in light continuously during the day. Sensors linked to automatic irrigation and temperature control systems provide optimal conditions for growing.

Planned production means a higher yield resource-wise, space optimization, and labor savings. Dr. Wei believes CEA technologies will be more accurate in the future to better balance cultivation and the environment with less energy consumption.

“And in this closed production system, we circulate water and fertilizer to cut emissions, and improve sustainability of agriculture,” she added.

Plant factory using artificial light. /VCG Photo

Plant factory using artificial light. /VCG Photo

While many believe this industrialized and intelligent way of farming will gradually replace extensive farming, which relies heavily on manual work and land usage for mass production, ordinary Chinese may have to accept difficulties in their daily lives during the process of moving on to the next stage.

For individual farmers that own the country's hundreds of millions of small plots, some have temporarily transferred their leaseholds to these high-tech farms and are adapting to their new roles.

Villager Wang Xiangang said that he got paid for both his land and working on the farm as an employee meaning he no longer worries about natural disasters and has time to learn about organic farming. He doesn't make as much as he used to, but it is stable.

And when conditions are ripe – will consumers be ready to pay a higher price for the products? Experts say the public will recognize the value of these crops as awareness of food safety and environmental stewardship rises. And once the demand rises, more players are expected to use tech-based food production, which will drive down prices.

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