While the COVID-19 impact has been predominantly negative, the pandemic appears to have sparked increased interest in developing agricultural technology (agtech) to improve the efficiency of food systems, from input supplies through farming and processing to delivery and retail.
The COVID-19 pandemic has admittedly upended economic activity in the Asia-Pacific region, but a recent event in Singapore, the Asia-Pacific Agri-Food Innovation Summit, showed that, in the case of agriculture and food, it has greatly spurred investments in technology to scale up food production sustainably. During 2020-21, momentum has been building up among financial institutions such as venture capital companies to invest in startup companies that produce technological innovations to address the shortcomings in food production and food supply chains. The UN Climate Summit COP26 further spurred activity before and after it was held, to focus on farming with reduced carbon footprints, reduced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and valorization of food waste, all aimed at promoting more sustainable and circular food systems.
During the pandemic, the international media highlighted phenomena like farmers dumping milk and feeding quality produce to cattle, vegetables rotting in fields due to lack of labor to harvest, increased food waste in urban environments, delays in supply of inputs for growing crops or feeding fish, and supermarkets with empty shelves. The pandemic has highlighted the need to produce more food locally and to use techniques that both minimize the use of labor and avoid a high carbon footprint. Governments have responded to some of these through policies and action. The private sector has responded even quicker, having detected investment opportunities to support solutions to these problems. Venture Capital funds like AgFunder and Yield Lab have set up their Asian bases in Singapore to support initiatives throughout the Asia-Pacific.
For on-farm production, digital farming is another area that has seen much progress during the pandemic to safeguard food production. Applications of remote sensors for environmental factors such as temperature, light, and water quality increased. These sensors included both stationary and mobile sensors mounted on drones. Many now utilize cloud technology to send data back to a centralized processing facility which, among the more “intelligent” sensors, further have capabilities to take action. In Indonesia, one new company in Java has implemented among several hundred shrimp farmers an “Internet of Things” (IoT) system which not only monitors the water in which the shrimps grow for any danger signs but also the growth of the shrimps and ultimately links the farmer to a potential buyer.
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