Technology beats humans to take first prize in Chinese competition to grow strawberries

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Rather unsurprisingly, technology has come out on top in a competition between the latest agtech disciplines and traditional farming methods, to see which was better at growing strawberries. As a result, the first ever Smart Agriculture Competition, organised by Pinduoduo Inc, China’s largest agtech platform that connects millions of agricultural producers with consumers across the country, has only further boosted the company’s credentials as a means to raise productivity and increase food security.

The competition saw four technology teams employ data analysis, intelligent sensors and greenhouse automation to produce an average of 6.86kg of strawberries – 196% more than the 2.32kg average grown by the three rivalling teams of traditional growers. The technologists also outperformed farmers in terms of return on investment by an average of 75.5%, according to the competition organiser.

Sensors deployed in the greenhouse to monitor plant growth at the Smart Agriculture Competition (Source: Pinduoduo)

Sensors deployed in the greenhouse to monitor plant growth at the Smart Agriculture Competition (Source: Pinduoduo)

‘CyberFarmer.HortiGraph’, a team made up mostly of researchers from the China Agricultural University and National Agriculture Intelligence Equipment Engineering Technical Research Center, took first place in the competition.

The four-month contest, which ended on 30 November, 2020, was co-organised by Pinduoduo and the China Agricultural University, with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations acting as technical adviser. The contest is the first cross-disciplinary smart agriculture competition in China organised by a technology company and university to develop planting methods to raise productivity and yield.

The push into smart agriculture is part of Pinduoduo’s broader goal of helping China realise the full economic potential of its vast agriculture resources. One of the first steps in improving productivity is to raise the level of digitisation across the value chain, from production to the transportation and sale of food.

Precision farming technology can help improve the crop on the production end, while agriculture analytics can cut food wastage by reducing mismatches in supply and demand, according to the company. For the growers, e-commerce allows them to tap on a much larger market than the local wholesaler, freeing them from the constraints of geography.

“Technology is the force multiplier that helps both the people who grow the food and the people who eat it,” said Andre Zhu, senior VP of Pinduoduo. “Investing in agriculture benefits the greatest number of people. We are happy to play the role of matchmaker and enabler.”

China roll out

Pinduoduo is now seeking to promote the technology developed by the teams in the competition to working farms in China. The company operates the largest agricultural e-commerce platform in China and works with farmers from impoverished regions of the country to sell their produce to urban consumers.

In the competition, the technology teams had the advantage of being able to control temperature and humidity through greenhouse automation. They were also more precise at controlling the use of water and nutrients. The traditional farmers had to achieve the same tasks by hand and experience.

A member of the traditional farming teams tending to the strawberry beds at the Smart Agriculture Competition. (Source: Pinduoduo)

A member of the traditional farming teams tending to the strawberry beds at the Smart Agriculture Competition. (Source: Pinduoduo)

CyberFarmer.HortiGraph, the winning team, employed knowledge graph technology to collect grower experience, historical cultivation data, and strawberry image recognition. This was then combined with water, fertiliser and greenhouse climate models to create an intelligent decision strategy for growing strawberries.

This competition was a successful journey for the team to explore how technology can be used in agriculture,” said Lin Sen, the team leader for CyberFarmer.HortiGraph and a researcher based at Beijing’s National Engineering Research Center for Information Technology in Agriculture.

The Smart Agriculture Competition has inspired at least one of the technology teams to commercialize their research, showing the potential market demand for smart agriculture solutions.

Zhi Duo Mei, comprising a group of university researchers, set up a company of the same name to provide its strawberry-planting technology to farming cooperatives after receiving numerous inquiries during the competition.

In agriculture, traditional farmers distrust data scientists, thinking they are flashy yet useless; data scientists also look down on farmers, thinking they are too old-fashioned,” said Cheng Biao, the leader of the Zhi Duo Mei team. “Through this competition, we realized the importance of combining both sides’ advantages and working together.

The competition helped Sun Yuqing, a member of Yanjiutian, the all-women team of farmers in the competition, change her view of technology: “For agriculture to advance, we need new techniques, new talent,” she concluded.

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