• Bloomberg, Kyodo


As the average age of farmers globally creeps higher and retirement looms, Japan has a solution; robots and driverless tractors.

The Group of Seven agriculture ministers began their two-day meeting in Niigata on Saturday for the first time in seven years to discuss how to meet increasing food demand as aging farmers retire without successors. With the average age of Japanese farmers now 67, agriculture minister Hiroshi Moriyama will outline his idea of replacing retiring growers with Japanese-developed autonomous tractors and backpack-carried robots.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has warned that left unchecked, aging farmers could threaten the ability to produce the food the world needs. The average age of growers in developed countries is now about 60, according to the United Nations.

Japan plans to spend ¥4 billion in the year through March to promote farm automation and help develop 20 different types of robots, including one that separates over-ripe peaches.

“There are no other options for farmers but to rely on technologies developed by companies if they want to raise productivity while they are graying,” said Makiko Tsugata, senior analyst at Mizuho Securities Co. in Tokyo. “The government should help them adopt new technologies.”

The amount of uncultivated farmland in Japan almost doubled in the past two decades, reaching 420,000 hectares (nearly 1,038,000 acres) in 2015, as farmers retired, data from the ministry show. About 65 percent of growers are 65 years old or older.

The dearth of young people willing to take up farming has increased concerns that Japan’s reliance on food imports will deepen, with the nation already getting about 60 percent of its food supplies from overseas.

Kubota Corp., Japan’s largest maker of agricultural machinery, has already developed its first prototype autonomous tractor for use in rice paddies. Equipped with a global positioning system, the vehicle cultivates fields and fertilizes after checking soil conditions. Iseki & Co. and Yanmar Co. are also developing systems with Hitachi Ltd. such as autonomous tractors and harvesters.

Kubota is also developing and marketing a suit-like device to help farmers harvest and carry fruit and vegetables. The ministry expects the robots, which can be put on like a backpack, to be able to help elderly and female farmers in field work that is difficult to be automated.

“Applying new technologies to farming will boost the appeal of agriculture to younger people and help increase their participation in the sector,” said Takaki Shigemoto, analyst at JSC Corp., a research company in Tokyo.

On the first day of the Niigata conference, ministers from Japan, Canada, Germany, Italy and the United States as well as representatives from Britain and France also discussed how to secure a stable food supply for the world’s growing population and cooperation in preventing livestock infections.

The rise of antimicrobial resistance as a result of the long-term use of antibiotic drugs to prevent livestock infections and food supply disruptions from climate change were also discussed.

So too was the need to increase agricultural productivity and to reduce the environmental impact of intensive farming.

“We got off to a good start with active discussions,” Moriyama, who chaired the meeting, told reporters after Saturday’s discussions.

Japan proposed doing more to attract more women and young people to farming and providing more information about the impact of climate change on farm products, Moriyama said.

They will issue a joint statement on Sunday, and the outcome of the gathering will be reflected in discussions at the G-7 Ise-Shima summit to be held on May 26 and 27 in Mie Prefecture.

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