Time to make agriculture sexy

Agriculture. A word so rarely used these days that it has been relegated to the outer recesses of most Malaysians’ minds.

Fair enough. Most of us are so disconnected from our food sources that we don’t actively think about it except when it comes up in the news for one reason or another.

It’s easy to forget that agriculture is the backbone on which the entire world civilisation was built. For something so crucial to our existence, isn’t it rather odd that we pay so little heed to it?

Agriculture as an occupation is shunned by most young Malaysians today.

The age of the average Malaysian farmer is a shocking 53. This is not an anomaly but rather a global trend. Agriculture does not possess the glamour that many newer sectors do. One major reason for this is that it just doesn’t pay nearly as well as most other modern industries such as finance and engineering do.

In addition, it is perceived as being physically labourious and often requires the person to live far away from the convenience and fast-paced lifestyle of a city.

Due to these issues and more, agriculture now only accounts for around a tenth of our GDP, a dramatic fall from its heyday in the 60’s, when it accounted for a whopping third of it.

This is an unfortunate situation which needs to be remedied, as our former finance minister and current government adviser Daim Zainuddin observes.

Insisting that agriculture is the way forward for Malaysia, he says a surefire way of stimulating the industry is by making it “sexy”. By that I think he means agriculture needs to pay as well as other major industries so youngsters will be enticed to venture into it. And there’s only one way to do that: turning agriculture into a high-tech industry.

There are a few key technologies that will allow Malaysia to make its youths go from shunning to embracing agriculture. And these key technologies can be broadly lumped into two main categories: (1) precision agriculture (smart sensing technology coupled with automation-driven agriculture) and (2) agricultural biotechnology.

Precision agriculture or precision farming is an exercise in injecting scientific rigor and smart technology into farming in order to maximise efficiency and yield. It involves closely monitoring and collecting exhaustive data on agricultural produce using a myriad of smart sensors, and acting on the data in very specific ways to conserve resources as opposed to the wasteful one-size-fits-all solutions that traditional agriculture often employs.

Precision agriculture is gaining ground in many parts of the world due to the increasing cost-effectiveness of technologies related to the Internet of Things (IoT).

Thanks in part to Moore’s law, we can now put ever more sophisticated technology inside a smaller area at increasingly cheaper prices.

This, coupled with advances in machine learning, has provided us with a potent cocktail of technologies which have in turn led to some breakthrough innovations. Chief among them being drones – the piece of technology many love to hate.

The very mention of drones often brings up disturbing mental images of military UAVs bombing unsuspecting civilians in war-torn Afghanistan.

Or maybe your first thought was of it being an annoyance due to its constant droning sound (hence the reason it’s called a drone. Surprise, surprise!).

Think of it what you will, drone technology is becoming a real boon to agriculture, paving the way for large-scale precision farming.

Drones can be equipped with smart sensing technology that allow it to do some incredibly useful things – map out entire swaths of farmland, find out the condition of the crops and detect changes in environmental conditions that might affect crop health (pH, moisture levels, organic matter content, etc).

In addition to collecting data, it can also spray water and pesticides on the crop in a hyper-local and precise manner, minimising resource waste.

The good news is, some forward-looking Malaysian companies are already starting to capitalise on this technology. Poladrone is a Cyberjaya-based startup that provides turnkey solutions to farm owners so they can monitor and collect invaluable data about their crops.

And Aerodyne, a Malaysian-based multinational that provides similar services to the agricultural sector (in addition to other sectors like oil and gas, emergency response and engineering) is now a major player in the global drone space and recently secured a RM126 million Series B round of funding.

But, as useful as drone tech is, it is only a piece of the solution. The agriculture ministry and other stakeholders need to make a concerted effort to convert as many farms as possible into high-tech ones.

It should be seen as an investment as the money that is put into modernising agriculture will help the farmer increase efficiency while reducing cost, and the savings can be passed on to you and me – the consumer.

The agricultural industry in Malaysia is skewed towards older people and is very capital intensive, which is why it is often resistant to change and slow to adopt new technology.

This makes it challenging to bring about change – but if successful, ultimately incredibly rewarding.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.