National / Politics

G20 farm ministers urge high-tech push, cross-sector cooperation to feed world's hungry

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

The Group of Twenty Agriculture Ministers Meeting concluded Sunday with calls to feed a growing global population and promote sustainable agriculture through new technologies, such as artificial intelligence, robotics and drones, and to increase cooperation among farmers, nonfarm businesses and academia.

Separately, a meeting between the U.S. and Japanese farm ministers Saturday failed to produce any breakthrough on lowering agricultural tariffs in Japan, which the U.S. wants reduced.

“The G20 meeting confirmed the importance of encouraging innovation in agriculture through the utilization of advanced technologies, including the latest information and communication technologies, artificial intelligence, and robotics,” said Japan’s minister of agriculture, Takamori Yoshikawa, at a news conference Sunday after the meeting.

The United Nations currently estimates the world’s population at 7.7 billion, and predicts it will reach 9.8 billion by 2050.

Japan, facing the opposite problem, used the Niigata meeting to showcase high-tech developments that are being applied to solve problems in its own agriculture sector.

“In Japan, we face pressing issues like population decline as well as the rapid aging of society. Initiatives introduced at this meeting, in terms of best practices, include the development of new technologies such as ‘autonomous driving’ tractors and drones to survey fields,” Yoshikawa said.

Set up outside the meeting room were displays from dozens of Japanese firms demonstrating their software and hardware technologies for the agriculture industry.

In addition to unmanned tractors, there were drones for monitoring crops, a tomato-harvesting robot and a “wearable robot’ — a backpack-like contraption that makes it easier for people to pick up and put down heavy loads without straining their backs.

The ministerial meeting took place about a week after a stark warning by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services that predicted up to 1 million plant and animal species face extinction within the coming decades, due at least partially to the rapid development of agriculture.

Crop and livestock operations currently co-opt more than 33 percent of Earth’s land surface and 75 percent of its freshwater resources, the report said. It added that agricultural activities are responsible for nearly 35 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions due to the widespread use of fertilizers and the ongoing razing of tropical forests to raise livestock.

In their declaration, the ministers noted briefly that the loss of biodiversity is one of the great global challenges that make agriculture vulnerable, but expressed particular concern about climate change.

To help farmers mitigate crop damage due to uncertain weather patterns as well as floods, droughts and typhoons, the use of new climate-smart technologies, including software that allows faster, easier access to the latest weather data, was encouraged.

The other issue of much discussion, and of specific importance to Japan in particular, was how to get younger people to join the agriculture sector. At Sunday’s news conference, Luis Miguel Etcheveherearge, Argentina’s state secretary of agro-industry, said while new technologies can attract younger people, it’s the bottom line that counts, and open markets are the key.

“If you want to see young people get into farming, it has to be profitable. In general, in order to be profitable, farming products around the world must have market access,” he said.

On the sidelines of the G20 conference, the issue of bilateral market access for agricultural process was discussed. At Saturday’s Japan-U.S. meeting, the allies remained divided over the question of lowering Japanese tariffs. U.S. President Donald Trump is scheduled to visit Japan from May 25 to 28, and concluding a bilateral trade treaty is at the top of the agenda.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue told reporters Saturday the U.S. is focusing on tariff levels on U.S. farm products as a way to reduce its $70 billion trade deficit with Japan. But Yoshikawa would only say that the U.S. agriculture market is an important one for Japan, and a reliable supplier of agricultural products.