A new agriculture industry

Even though agriculture is a crucial industry that produces food for us to eat, it is often largely neglected and narrowly defined as a “labor-intensive primary industry.” However, as food shortages have become a reality due to explosive population growth and reduced crop yields caused by climate change, attempts have been actively made to apply high-tech technologies to agriculture. As a result, a new industry that grafts together the primary and fourth industries has emerged, “AgTech.”

AgTech is springing up everywhere

AgTech is a combination of the words “agriculture” and “technology.” It is a new industrial group that has emerged through the application of cutting-edge Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies such as artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, big data, robots, and the metaverse, to agriculture. Since the middle of the 20th century, humankind has largely prospered by growing and consuming crops grown without the help of IT technology. So why have efforts to realize AgTech suddenly expanded so drastically in recent years? It is because the food crisis is now right at our doorsteps.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the world population is expected to exceed 10 billion by 2050. In order to feed this many people, within the next 30 years, the world will have to produce 60% more food than it does today. However, it is close to impossible to continuously produce this much food using only the farming methods that are currently being employed. At the same time, the FAO stresses that in order to respond to recent accelerations in climate change, agricultural land that is double the size of India must be turned into forests and globally, the agriculture and food sector must achieve a 70% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing greenhouse gas from arable land and agriculture while at the same time increasing food production seems nearly impossible. However, the seed of hope, known as AgTech, has already sprouted and is growing rapidly like bamboo shoots soaked with rainwater.

In 2022, the Korea Rural Economic Institute conducted a study titled “Measures for Vitalizing the AgTech Industry,” which described the rapid growth of AgTech. According to the results of the study, the global market share of agricultural automation equipment increased by an average of 13.4% annually from USD 2.485 billion in 2017 to USD 3.195 billion in 2019 and is expected to increase by 13.9% annually to USD 7.944 billion by 2025. In addition, the global market share of smart farm-related equipment increased by an average of 9.6% annually from USD 748 million in 2017 to USD 899 million in 2019 and is expected to grow by 7.6% annually to USD 1.33 billion by 2025.

The starting point of AgTech: Smart farms

AgTech originated at smart farms, which were created so that farmers could more actively control the growth environment. In order for crops to grow properly, nature’s influence must be minimized. Simply put, the crops need to be shaded when the sun is too strong, and watered even when there is a drought. Also all these processes must take place at the right time. Most smart farms have been built indoors in the form of vinyl houses, glass greenhouses, and plant factories. Using various sensors and equipment connected to the internet, farmers can keep tabs on the conditions at the smart farm, anytime, anywhere with just a computer and a smartphone, and can adjust everything from temperature and humidity to amounts of light, carbon dioxide concentration, wind strength, and nutrient supplements. Pre-programmed settings can also be used so that the smart farm can automatically maintain the perfect growth environment for plants.

There are now even vertical, high-rise farms producing thousands of tons of vegetables per year standing tall in the middle of major US cities. As part of global efforts to create a virtuous cycle, a Dutch company is planning to create a building with a giant ecosystem housed inside. The idea is to cultivate crops on the rooftop and raise fish inside the building, so that fish waste can be used as compost and the water can be purified using the plants.

From large-scale innovation valleys to subway metro farms

Smart farm cultivation at Sangdo Station (Robots sowing seeds! Korea’s first “metro farm” at Sangdo Station on Line 7, “Seoul in My Hand”)

Korea has also set smart farms as a major future growth engine and has been actively supporting them since 2014. The results of these efforts are becoming widely evident. As a result of the smart farm project conducted by the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, smart farms have been set up at 4,000 hectares of horticulture facilities, 730 livestock farms, and 600 fruit farms by 2017. The Ministry also plans to build pilot complexes for each region and implement a large-scale smart farm innovation valley project that maximizes synergy by integrating smart farms.

Smart farms have also appeared in Korea’s capital city. In 2019, the Seoul Metropolitan Government and Seoul Transportation Corporation worked with a smart agricultural company in Korea to install a “metro farm” at Sangdo Station on Seoul Subway Line 7. The indoor space, which was formerly a meeting room, was transformed into a smart farm, creating added value to the area and enhancing the ecological sensitivities of Seoul residents. The metro farm, the world’s first smart farm set up at a subway station, is currently set up at five stations, including Chungjeongno Station on Line 2, Dapsimni Station on Line 5, and Euljiro 3-ga Station on Lines 2 and 3. The city of Seoul and Seoul Transportation Corporation plan to add more metro farms at subway stations in the future.

Going beyond smart farms to the metaverse

AgTech is also closely connected to the metaverse, a recent buzzword in the technology field. In 2017, an American company developed “Plant Vision,” which combines AI technology with augmented reality to create a crop management system that diagnoses crop abnormalities using an infrared camera and RGB camera installed at farms. It even analyzes the causes of the abnormalities and presents solutions. Thanks to this system, which is implemented using smart devices, farmers can easily obtain diverse cultivation information that cannot be gained through the human senses and use it to enhance productivity.

“Digital Twin” technology, which translates images and data from real farms into a virtual reality environment, is also being used to improve agricultural productivity. A metaverse/VR digital agriculture pilot base has been set up on 23.07 hectares of land in Nanchang, Jiangxi Province, China. By creating a virtual agricultural complex that is identical to real-life farms, diverse experiments can be conducted that cannot be performed in reality. Since actual farm and breeding data has been digitized, processes that would take years in reality can be sped up through simulations. This makes it possible to predict and prepare for future conditions, and to develop a variety of highly effective technologies to improve production.

The agricultural metaverse is also taking root in Korea

Various attempts to graft agriculture with the metaverse are also being made in Korea. In November 2022, the Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs unveiled its virtual promotion platform “Wook Craft” using the metaverse. Based off of Minecraft, a metaverse-based game, the platform features a map of agricultural spaces such as the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, rural villages, smart farms, ecological farms, and the Agricultural Museum. Anyone with a Minecraft account can freely participate in Wook Craft and experience and explore the diverse world of rural farming. The Ministry announced that Wook Craft will not be a temporary program but will continue to be used as a platform for communication and for introducing agricultural and food policies to Generation MZ.

In January of this year, the Agricultural Metaverse Conference 2023, connecting agriculture and the metaverse, was held for the first time in Korea. The event introduced the latest trends in agricultural metaverse and diverse technologies and platforms, with the “Meta Farm,” a platform designed to move smart automated farms in sync with their digital twins, gaining much attention from event participants. Farmers using the Meta Farm can regulate and check various control categories in the virtual space, which is identical to their actual farms, and enhance their efficiency and productivity.

Another showstopper at the event was the agricultural metaverse planet, “Toriverse,” which is being built by specialists from different sectors. Toriverse is a virtual space where crops can be grown, produced, and distributed. It is being designed so that it will also be possible to grow and sell crops in connection with actual farms. Min Seung-kyu, a professor at Hankyong National University and the founder of the Meta Agro School (a venture agricultural college), is leading the project. He explained that the Toriverse will make it possible to: build digital twins; provide virtual agricultural education; gain agricultural experience; operate an agricultural product exchange; advertise and promote agricultural and marine products; and launch NFTs (non-fungible tokens) using agricultural assets within Toriverse.

An undeniable 2nd agricultural revolution, AgTech

While AgTech is positioned as an industry with tremendous growth potential and sustainability, it is still in its infancy in Korea. The Korea Rural Economic Institute estimates that compared to technologically advanced countries, less than 50% of farmers, and less than 60% of technology experts possess AgTech capabilities. However, according to the results of a survey on the acceptance of AgTech technology in Korea, 80% of the farmers surveyed said that they are willing to adopt AgTech technologies and products. These results show why the government and public institutions must take a more active approach to supporting and developing the AgTech industry in Korea.

Since AgTech is very specialized, each technology is complicated and difficult to understand. Yet, for the end user, there is no need to think too deeply about each technology. Just like many adults are able to drive a car perfectly well without having a full knowledge about how it functions, when applied appropriately, AgTech can dramatically raise the productivity and value of agriculture, even without an in-depth knowledge of the technologies. We must continue to support the development of AgTech technologies and at the same time, actively look for ways to apply them. With these efforts, the second agricultural revolution will be able to be realized and produce great benefits.

By cultural columnist Kang Jin-woo