“Small but powerful” is how the Korean agriculture system was described at the recent Green and Agritech Asia 2023 conference, held in Gwangju, Republic of Korea.
Agri-TechE members Vitabeam (headed up by CEO James Millchamp-Merrick) and Aponic International (led by Jason Hawkins-Row) joined the mini-mission to showcase UK technologies relevant to the Korean market.
A Big Prize
The potential of the Republic of Korea is huge. The country currently imports 75 % of its food, and while fruit, vegetables and rice are the key outputs of domestic agriculture, this is delivered by an ageing population of farmers, most managing less than a hectare of land each.
An additional challenge is air pollution – many of the plots are alongside busy roads and airborne contaminants from other countries are also a major issue, making controlled environment agriculture particularly attractive.
A strategic plan is underway in Korea to improve productivity by harnessing new tools of technology – such as Artificial Intelligence, cloud computing and use of “big data” – and applying technologies from smart cities into agriculture. With increasing ambition and significant infrastructure investment into research and glasshouse, there are big plans for growth.
Engaging with the Farmers
Yet, in a pattern we are seeing increasingly round the world, there was a lamentable absence of farmers, and much of the technology is being developed in isolation from these end-users. As we know and have seen, test-beds and mechanisms to de-risk farmer adoption of new practices are crucial, especially where there is a traditional mind-set suspicious of change.
The Smart Farm Innovation Valley is a 21ha site resulting from around $70m of investment aimed at supporting start-ups and educating farmers in the use of new technologies. Significant glasshouse real estate, a ‘big data’ centre and a strong focus on young growers is designed to attract new thinking into the industry.
Agri-TechE in South Korea
Part of Agri-TechE’s mandate is to help members develop their business – either in the UK or internationally. Dr Belinda Clarke, Director of Agri-TechE accompanied the members to Korea and commented: “It was a pleasure to be joined by Jason and James representing Aponic International and Vitabeam respectively.
She continues: “It was an honour to give a keynote talk at the Green and Agritech Asia Conference and Exhibition alongside Mukul Varshney, Director of Corporate Affairs at John Deere.
“The grand opening ceremony was an impressive affair, with the Mayor of Gwangju and representatives from the Rural Development Administration of Jellanando Province. It was a pleasure to meet again our long-standing friend and colleague, Kyeong-Hwan Lee, Associate Professor at Chonnam National University.
“His vision for an AI Agri-Tech Convergence Industrialisation Valley is coming to life with a fully automated pilot test farm for digital agriculture, an R&D Centre and significant glasshouse real estate supported by agricultural research and extension services.
“There was a warm welcome for technology developers and scientists looking to join the ecosystem. So, a good reception for our two Agri-TechE members – Jason Hawkins-Row of Aponic International and James Millichap-Merrick of Vitabeam.
Highlights of the mission included demonstrations of vertical farming solutions, robotics and computer vision technologies, plus use of AI, machine learning and deep learning to give actionable insights about crop performance.
Jason (Aponic International) explained: “I wanted to go to experience first-hand the level of farming in Korea and feel the pinch points of food security and resilience, also to observe the state of play for the everyday farmer.
“Having spoken to government officials and farmers there seems to be a mismatch between them and I can envisage a wide application of the Aponic vertical aeroponic farming on small, medium and large scale to make the most of the limited farmable spaces available.
“There is also familiar friction from older generations who want tradition and younger farmers who want to try new, less labour-intensive methods. We will be offering an energy and water efficient, urban, peri-urban and rural food production enabling technology as a package to all farmers and officials we met there.
James (Vitabeam) also commented: “With such a high volume of food imported by the Republic of Korea, we see it as vital that investment is enhanced to support the large domestic farming community, combined with the scientific communities to deploy the best growing solutions.
“We could envision a revolution in their food production. Our opportunity is significant in helping them grow CEA crops and post-harvest pre-packaging technology to ensure healthier, clean and fresh produce production.
“It was an invaluable event made all the more enjoyable by such great attendees! We really wish to thank Belinda Clarke from Agri-TechE, Si Yoo from Digital Chosun and all members of the local government and Rural Development Administration of Jeollanam-do Province who made this trip possible.
Agri-TechE’s next International Initiative will take us to the plains of Saskatchewan, Canada (virtually) on Monday 25 September. Find out more about our global reach.