“Our AI models are focused on helping plants to grow well”

A team of horticulture researchers and data scientists from the prestigious China Agricultural University is taking part in the Pinduoduo tomato-growing contest to evaluate how useful artificial intelligence is in helping farmers improve production.

AI assists growers
Calling themselves CyberTomato, the researchers are using computer vision techniques to find signs of plant disease, forecast fruit output and make recommendations such as when and how much to water and fertilize. The role of AI in this scenario is to assist farmers in making decisions instead of replacing them.

That is closer to how farmers will use AI in real-life operations, according to Yang Hao, a PhD student at China Agricultural University and CyberTomato team member. He was part of the winning team in the inaugural Smart Agriculture Competition in 2020/21.

“Last year, we had to build comprehensive AI models to manage the overall production in the greenhouse, while this year AI is more focused on helping plants to grow well,” said Yang. “In this sense, AI is playing a supporting role instead of a leading role this year.”

Spearheaded by Pinduoduo, China’s largest agriculture platform, the Smart Agriculture Competition aims to provide a platform for top agricultural and computer science researchers to develop practical, cost-effective technology that can help farmers to improve production, and by extension, their livelihoods.

The contest is co-organized by China Agricultural University and Zhejiang University and supported by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and Wageningen University & Research, giving the participants a high-profile avenue to showcase their work to global experts.

In the inaugural competition, technology teams outperformed traditional growing teams by producing 196% more strawberries by weight on average. By demonstrating the potential of AI in increasing production yield, the competition now focuses on how to integrate and apply the technology in conditions that more closely mimic commercial agriculture.

Technology use
China is promoting the use of technology in agriculture to close the gap with developed countries in production yield and become self-sufficient in staple foods. That has ranged from the increasing deployment of drones for mapping and spraying, to highly automated greenhouses that use sensors to detect minute changes in soil composition and climate.

Technology is the key to overcoming China’s lack of arable land. It takes about 1 acre to feed the average US consumer, while China has only about 0.2 acres of arable land per citizen.

However, there are obstacles standing in the way of adoption, from the availability of trained labor to operate sophisticated technology, to the cost-effectiveness of such technology. Ensuring that researchers are developing technology that is commercially feasible thus takes on added importance.

“China is facing the challenge of rising labor costs and aging farming population,” said Liu Haojie, a member of CyberTomato who founded his own agtech business after graduation. “Toward the later stage of the competition we will review our technologies and come up with a viable solution, and ultimately we hope to commercialize it to help farmers.

CyberTomato is one of four teams that have seen selected for the finals of the Smart Agriculture Competition, now entering its final stretch at Pinduoduo’s smart greenhouse based in Yunnan.

Contestants will take a multidisciplinary approach, applying nutrition science, precision farming, and other relevant technology to cultivate tomatoes. The winners will be judged on yield, nutritional value, environmental sustainability, and commercial viability.

“I think it is a particularly good direction if we can put this kind of scientific and technological means to solve the problem of agricultural production and then be able to use less land to feed more people,” said Yang Ruimei, a PhD student specializing in controlled greenhouse environment at China Agricultural University.

“I come from the countryside, and I think that if agriculture is to be developed, there is a need for more talented young people to join the development of agriculture.”

For more information on the competition:
Smart Agricultural Competition

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