In Taiwan, Even Farming Needs to Be High-Tech
With an increase of extreme weather due to climate change, the need for food security in Taiwan is more pressing than ever. Could new technologies help defend Taiwanese agriculture?
By Yu Hsuan Amy Yang
Hotter summers and unpredictable rainfalls due to climate change are big threats to agricultural production in Taiwan. Could digital technologies help offset some of these problems?
Farmers in Taiwan make decisions based on their intuition and experience, but with increasingly unpredictable weather patterns, it’s difficult to make accurate forecasts. In addition, Taiwan’s rural population is aging fast, and younger generations aren’t enthusiastic about taking up farming.
To tackle some of these issues, Taiwan’s Council of Agriculture drafted a new game plan in 2016, called the “Smart Agriculture 4.0 Program”. The program looks to promote new technologies in order to boost agricultural productivity and ensure consistent food supplies. The global push to introduce disruptive technologies into the more traditional agricultural sector is sometimes referred to as “precision agriculture.”
But what is precision agriculture exactly? The U.S. National Research Council defines it as a “management strategy that uses information technology to bring data from multiple sources to bear on decisions associated with crop production.”
In short, farmers can use tech tools to better manage inputs like water, fertilizer and pesticides, as well as outputs through selective harvesting. Potentially, these tools will lead to an increase in crop yield and quality. Some examples include sensors in the field that detect changes in moisture and nutrient levels, and software that converts field data into simplified decision-making processes.
Precision agriculture technologies could contribute to greater sustainability in Taiwan's agricultural industries, and turn farming from a physically intensive sector to a mentally intensive one. In turn, it might help attract a new generation of food producers.
These technologies also ensure efficient and safe use of limited resources like fertilizers and pesticides. By carefully controlling their output, digital technologies can reduce the possibility of runoff and waste.
Through a series of interviews, including government officials, software developers and farmers (the end users of such technologies), I learned about some of the barriers that are hindering the development of Taiwan’s precision agriculture sector.
Barriers ranged from the high costs associated with these new technologies to a lack of perceived net benefits in investing in precision agriculture. There is also a lack of publicly available data on the need for such technologies in Taiwan's agricultural sector. All of which points toward the need for a more focused strategy to align with the needs of stakeholders.
Some interviewees noted that Taiwan’s fragmented farmlands make it difficult to justify the use of high-cost precision agriculture technologies. In response, Taiwan’s Land Consolidation Engineering Bureau and the Council of Agriculture have already started the process of physically (and virtually) consolidating farmlands.
Here are some of the suggestions I heard from stakeholders:
To justify the high cost of these new technologies, government departments could focus on promoting precision agriculture for high revenue crops.
More education about the benefits of precision agriculture technologies is needed.
By opening up government agricultural data, precision agriculture technology companies can better calibrate their tools and software.
The government should formalize regulations surrounding data ownership and data sharing to better protect private agricultural data from misuse.
In an interview I conducted with the Council of Agriculture, a representative said they are working on offering more workshops and classes to farmers about the benefits of precision agriculture. They are also working to provide more open agricultural data.
Although I gleaned a number of insights on how to advance precision agriculture in Taiwan, I encountered a number of limitations during my research, and should be kept in mind for other researchers in this area. I was only able to interview 15 individuals over my ten day trip. I also missed some opportunities to interview key stakeholders, which may have resulted in some gaps in information.
With that said, the study (which will see release this September) could serve as a useful starting point to better understand the current state of precision agriculture in Taiwan, and what work remains to be done in the sector.
Funding for this research was generously provided by the Asian Institute at the University of Toronto as a part of their Global Taiwan Studies Program. I would like to thank all the interview participants, with a special thanks to Dr. Pierre Desrochers for proof reading and comments, Dr. Sean Field for his assistance creating interview guides and Kun Wu Yao for assisting with field work and translations.