China: This woman's unmanned 'plant factory' replaces human labor in agriculture

Gu Xiaoxiao takes a bucket of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium to a greenhouse, pours the fertilizer mixture into a pool in the ground, and mixes it up. The diluted fertilizer is then pumped through numerous tubes to soilless beds, the cradles of life to the vegetables grown in them.

Just five years ago, in this greenhouse facility in Chongming District, known as a "plant factory" for its controlled plant cultivation environment, human labor was involved in most of the production processes. "I felt like a pig farmer, but fortunately a machine that prepares fertilizers now does the job," said Gu, a researcher with the Shanghai Agricultural Machinery Research Institute. "Still I couldn't help but wonder, why can't machines take over the rest of the human labor here?"

Gu, 35, a native of Qidong in Jiangsu Province, studied hydraulic engineering at China Agricultural University in Beijing and landed her current job in Shanghai to try her hand at agricultural engineering. To better understand how the plant factory worked, Gu became a helping hand there in 2016, and that experience, she said, made her more aware of the urgency to replace human labor in agriculture.

"Most of the farmers there are in their 60s and 70s. Following them, I transplanted seedlings from plates to the production lines," she said. "It was not much muscle work, but repeating the same movement for a long time could also make one feel sore all over."

Human labor still dominates in most agricultural cooperatives where vegetables are planted. The cooperatives, where small family farms work together as a business, are major players in agricultural production in Shanghai. The city has extended experiments to replace human labor with machines in 18 vegetable-planting projects, and the most successful one has already replaced over 80 percent of human labor with machines.

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