Interview with Chen Junne-jih, Deputy Minister of the Council of Agriculture, Executive Yuan (COA), and Chen Hong-chen, Director General of the Department of Life Sciences, Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST)
For every country, the agricultural sector is always the backbone of economy. As such, increasing support for policies and technological developments related to new agriculture is a matter that brooks no delay. The establishment of a smart agricultural sci-tech service system has been a top priority for Taiwan government in recent years, the goals of which have been to boost efficiency in agricultural operations and management, enhance product quality, stabilize production levels, and improve risk management. In September 2020, the Executive Yuan convened the BioTaiwan Committee (BTC) to identify five areas of action for the purpose of promoting new agriculture technology and strengthening food safety measures. These include recommendations to consolidate resources in cross-domain applications of technology, integrate digital technology into precision medicine, enhance agricultural diversification to support a high-quality ecosystem for precision medicine and big health, and build resources and infrastructure for the big health industry. The Council of Agriculture (COA) and Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) have since collaborated to enact programs and policies in line with these five areas.
Progressive Developments and New Mindsets in Smart Agriculture
Under the Five Plus Two Industry Innovation Plan, the COA is channeling resources into smart agriculture technology as part of the plan’s push to advance new agriculture. The development of smart tools for agricultural production and management is in line with two core principles—to generate higher revenue for farmers and to safeguard food safety for consumers. COA Deputy Minister Chen Junne-jih pointed out that efforts to promote the agricultural sector must be backed by a strong understanding of how people, resources, and the industry itself can support one another under the new agriculture framework. The core principles of smart agriculture—precision, efficiency, and low risk—mirror their twin emphases on precision and resilience. Integrating these principles into the aforementioned three aspects would maximize any reaped benefits. One concrete example is a portal boasting a wide range of agricultural sales and services, created by tapping into the affordances of IoT and big data to encourage farmers to enter the agricultural service industry and adopt new business models. Initiatives available under this scheme include the Smart Farmers Union—affectionately known as Agriculture Uber—which consists of young farmers providing contract farming services in six different counties and cities, and a heavy machinery and agricultural drone sprayer booking system in which around 360 licensed vendors have been registered. These programs have not only alleviated labor shortage woes but are also advancing the mechanization of the agriculture industry and increasing the usage rate of existing agricultural machinery. To date, the use of human-machine interfaces, smart tools, and biosensors has saved a total of 83,072 working hours, reduced costs by NT$264 million, and cut down on agricultural water usage by 33%. Agriculture, fishery, and livestock farmers participating in these initiatives have created a total worth of NT$520 million and invested NT$1.792 billion in smart agriculture facilities and services.
Chen Hong-chen, Director General of the Department of Life Sciences, MOST, shared that MOST began the Applications of Smart Technology to Agricultural Products project in 2018 to combat the challenges brought on by climate change, labor shortages, and an aging population. The project integrates ICT and IoT technology as well as other digital tools into agricultural production processes. Since its inception, the project has borne numerous innovations that are slated to reduce manpower needs by 30% and increase production efficiency by 60%. In addition to refine outstanding R&D results, MOST also works with other ministries to attract more industry partners to join in commodifying the agricultural sector and strengthening its technology, food, and health industries. It is hoped that agricultural operations can ultimately be made more precise, and agricultural products even safer.
Minimizing Agricultural Risks in the Face of Climate Change
In 2020, for the first time in 50 years, no typhoon made landfall in Taiwan during the wet season, resulting in a serious water shortage in mountainous areas. A total of 62,000 hectares of farmland have been hit by the suspension of irrigation, and subsidies for affected farmers have reached a record high of NT$5.96 billion. The COVID-19 pandemic that broke out in the same year presented additional challenges in the form of reduced human traffic, logistics issues, reduced demand, and changes in consumption patterns, in addition to exacerbating the issues of labor shortages and threats to food supplies. Since the livelihood of farmers is at the mercy of climate conditions, natural disasters and ecological balance are naturally among their topmost concerns.
According to a study conducted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2018, at the current rate of global warming caused by human activities, the planet’s temperature is expected to rise by 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052. Deputy Minister Chen stated out that this reflects the extreme unpredictability of climate change. In response, the agriculture industry has participated in many cross-domain R&D projects, including the creation of crop screening programs and the cultivation of new plant varieties that are tolerant to drought and heat. These measures will enable the agriculture industry to adapt more readily to extreme weather conditions in the future. Disaster prevention and mitigation technology have also been employed in the cultivation of region-specific crops such as sweet potatoes and jujubes to maintain yield and reduce financial losses. Additionally, innovations in areas like irrigation techniques and field operations have helped tide farmers over during drought seasons by saving 30% in water consumption without affecting the yield and quality of rice crops. Deputy Minister Chen also mentioned that the most important task of smart agriculture technology is to minimize operational risks. For example, digital technology and algorithms can be used to create a smart disaster prevention system capable of generating dynamic forecasts on the path, intensity, and rainfall of typhoons, and perhaps even predict potential damage. This system could thus be used to reduce risks faced by farmers in the event of a typhoon.
Director General Chen highlighted that Taiwan is already being subjected to global warming and changes in rainfall patterns. Extreme weather conditions such as torrential rain, droughts, and floods have been increasing in both frequency and intensity over the years. The foothills of Taiwan have been subjected to the strains of both climate change and human development, thus becoming an arena for the interplay of land conservation, urban development, and agriculture. This has resulted in the fragmentation of land use and jeopardization of the ecology. In light of this predicament, there is an urgent need for cross-domain dialogue on the development, conservation, and socioeconomic concerns pertaining to these natural resources, so we may gain a holistic perspective on the impact of climate change on Taiwan's foothill ecosystems as well as on human society. Such dialogue will facilitate the establishment of a system aimed at providing assessment services that can strengthen future adaptability in the vicinity. The system will cover three areas, namely the creation of a natural disaster risk management system, restoration of the ecosystem, and improvement of socioeconomic conditions in the farming community. In addition, it aims to accomplish the four overarching goals of ecological support, environmental regulation, economic supply, and preservation of the local culture. A diverse, sustainable, and adaptable management strategy can then be derived to allow the ecosystem and human development to peacefully co-exist on these foothills.
New Agricultural Technology as Support for the Precision Health Industry
The Taiwanese people have become more health-conscious in recent years. Issues such as the quality of life of an aging population, healthy eating, functional foods, and precise nutrition for people with suboptimal health have all gained traction in social discourse. Because of this, MOST has planned to conduct in-depth investigations into the efficacy of natural produce as preventive medicine and for medicine food homology (MFH) uses. At the same time, MOST will build on the cross-domain nature of the agriculture industry by introducing precision nutrition technology to develop multi-functional supplements for all ages to meet their nutritional needs. The COA has also created a smart portal focused on food safety and R&D that can trace food ingredients and relevant testing. It can also facilitate the development of a more diverse agriculture industry that can supply the resources and infrastructure needed by the precision health and big health industries. It is hoped that these government policies will help reduce the liability on the National Health Insurance (NHI) program and create new opportunities where the traditional agricultural sector would be auxiliary to the health industry.
Deputy Minister Chen cited specific examples of initiatives that have been put in place, such as the Smart Agri portal, which, in the interest of safeguarding children’s health and well-being, collects 10 types of data to trace food ingredients used in school lunches to ensure that those consumed by school children are from safe sources. In the same vein, a Contract Research Organization (CRO) platform has been set up to support the development of the biomedical industry by bridging the gap between the upstream and downstream sectors in the medical device supply chain and assisting vendors in obtaining licenses to enter foreign markets. The one-stop service provided on this platform accelerates the development of innovative, quality, safe, and high-end medical products. The future of agriculture should not merely be an extension of its past, but a domain of cross-domain creativity and innovation so that the industry can firmly support the precision health industry and play a pivotal role in keeping our population healthy.
Director General Chen also believes that demographic changes caused by declining birthrates and the COVID-19 pandemic have prompted many people to pay more attention to health issues, with precision nutrition being a hot topic. The market demand for nutrition and health products is also increasing. At present, considerable research on functional ingredients such as animal and plant extracts, secondary metabolites, fermented products, and enzymes has already been conducted. Future research could be oriented towards areas such as laying a strong academic foundation in the development of active ingredients and improving current processing models. A focus on precision health could also promote the development of multi-functional supplements to meet the healthcare needs of each individual. By making some changes to its market, the agriculture industry can enjoy these new business opportunities.
Honing Taiwan’s Competitive Edge in Agriculture
As Taiwan adapts to rapid, ever-changing global and domestic developments, its farmers are being confronted with the challenge of growing and transforming in kind. The agricultural industry must not only seek out the means to boost efficiency, but also increase the value of its goods and services, all the while considering its role in building a sustainable society. Director General Chen said that in today's world, it is increasingly common for agricultural technology to be applied in a diverse range of domains. This may range from simple digitalization to more complex smart automation, made possible by integrating applications of technologies and concepts such as ICT, industrial technology, and data analysis to the entire agricultural supply chain.
Deputy Minister Chen reiterated that the twin goals of developing new agricultural technology are to generate higher revenue for farmers and to safeguard food safety for consumers. To attain these goals, the government has implemented a three-pronged approach which includes improving farmers' welfare, improving infrastructure, and improving competitiveness, all of which will be rolled out via 29 implementation strategies. The four mid-term goals of agricultural technology implementation are, respectively, connecting efficiently with the global market, improving safety controls, promoting sustainable practices, and developing integrated high-value industries. The COA will embark on cross-domain projects to consolidate resources across different fields to accelerate the digital transformation of the agricultural industry, and to safeguard food safety in Taiwan. The council also seeks to create new value for the agricultural sector, enhance value-growth in the industry, increase farmers' incomes, and ultimately create a sustainable agricultural industry.
Moving forward, cross-domain applications of technology will take center stage in the agricultural R&D of Taiwan. By capitalizing on the country's strength in ICT and focusing on the integration of new technologies, the R&D sector can, in line with national policies, continue to develop sustainable solutions and renewable energy sources for agricultural use while also fortifying the smart integration of supply chains and disease prevention and control. In light of this goal, monitoring platforms and databases can be brought together to create a smart system for the prevention and control of zoonotic diseases, while smart decision-making mechanisms can be installed to upgrade epidemic control from passive monitoring to active forecasting. Besides safeguarding public health, the digital transformation of the agroecosystem will also make the agricultural industry more resilient and competitive as it accelerates the adoption of new business models and allows Taiwan's agricultural industry to become an even stronger player in the international market.