The food industry is gaining a taste for new technology. Big data is providing insights into consumer behaviour; the internet of things (IoT) is helping food companies increase their levels of traceability and allowing for monitoring of food safety across the supply chain; regulatory bodies are using this wealth of information to hone assessment policies and processes on food safety. And with a predicted value of over US$250 billion by 2022, this digital revolution is also healthy business.

Asia’s food sector is heavily dependent on millions of smallholder farmers. For them, “agri-tech” is more than just a buzzword. It can be their key to survival in a world made increasingly challenging and uncertain by climate change.

IoT can streamline production, save valuable resources and tackle pests and crop diseases to better meet the growing food demand of the region’s rising population.

Asian innovations

In Vietnam, agriculture makes up a third of the country’s economy. Here, a group of young pioneers have been working towards their vision to “improve the lives and livelihoods of farmers” through digital transformation. Their IoT platform allows farmers to optimise irrigation and fertilisation, leading to more sustainable food production. With more than 692 farmers on their network so far, the next aim for the team is the development of soil sensor nodes to send data directly to the internet, as well as data readings from smartphones.

This group may be trailblazers, but they are not alone. In Cambodia, international charity Oxfam is working with organic rice growers to help them use blockchain technology to promote fair trade. BlocRice, a three-way digital agreement among the local rice farmers, exporters and their international buyers, creates a “smart” contract with visibility on all sides that helps farmers negotiate on transparent terms.

This technology has also made its way to Papua New Guinea, where the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations is working with pork producers to use blockchain to monitor their livestock against international production and ethics standards, and gain access to international markets.

But while blockchain is breaking down borders, the UN is finding that in certain regions there are barriers to change. Compared to India, where almost a quarter of the country’s 120 million farmers have a smartphone and a basic understanding of digital marketplaces, in Cambodia, smartphone access is only 10 to 20 per cent. This raises the uncomfortable question of whether connectivity in the food industry might lead to greater division.

With much of Southeast Asia’s agriculture industry still low tech and high labour, the key to a smooth agri-tech transition relies on awareness, active community involvement and education, according to Akshay Saigal, director of DXC Labs Asia. Backed by the Singapore Economic Board, the DXC Technology Digital Innovation Lab is building a data lake from real-time IoT sources, together with geospatial imagery. The results will hone high-precision farming, allowing for greater analysis and control of critical factors such as sunlight availability and intensity, wind speed, land slope, cloud cover and precipitation.

Building connections in isolation

Technology is not just feeding farmers’ livelihoods. In the midst of a global pandemic and a world in isolation, it is building a valuable picture of a new, hyper-connected world.

This past April saw Singapore call last orders for its bars and restaurants as they joined a series of nations in semi-lockdown. During the same period, digital delivery platforms such as GrabFood, Deliveroo and FoodPanda saw a 20 per cent spike in orders, as food outlets rushed to gain virtual visibility. The current climate has sped up the digitalisation of the food industry, and each online delivery comes with a side order of customer data.

This is building a detailed view of the market: a digital map that will allow restaurants, regulators and public sector leaders to understand how and what the nation is eating — and how to feed its demands. Algorithms can provide real-time feedback to restaurant partners, including key peak times, to help improve delivery efficiency.

A global issue for governments

While feeding citizens is one of the most pressing issues for any nation, understanding and implementing the potential benefits of food tech is on the table for most Asian governments.

The Singapore Food Agency (SFA) has dedicated a S$63 million Agriculture Productivity Fund (APF) towards the test-bedding of technologies, and a more productive, sustainable and innovative food industry.

Having supported 108 national farms as of January 2020, SFA’s next ambition is to bring agriculture to the city, with commercial high-tech urban farms, which will help shape Singapore’s move towards self-sufficient food production. This move and a hefty S$144 million government pledge towards food-related innovations have earned the city-state the title of “FoodTech Capital of Asia”.

But it is only the start of the race. As societies across the continent rapidly grow, urbanise and digitalise, increasingly more countries will turn to technology to meet their citizens’ most basic demands. And with S$1.1 trillion more needed in the agri-food sector by 2030 for Asia to feed itself sustainably, there is a big appetite for change.