Japan startups team with farmers to put tech to work in agriculture

From robots to artificial intelligence and blockchain-based marketing, technological innovation is increasingly being harnessed in Japan to improve farming methods and create a more sustainable industry.

Among those embracing the digital trend is Metagri-Labo, a community launched in March 2022 that aims to merge agriculture and blockchain technology to increase farming revenues while revitalizing regional areas.

The group is working to make decentralized finance, an umbrella term for peer-to-peer financial interactions using smart contracts, a reality in the agricultural industry by 2024 with the launch of its first non-fungible token project in partnership with farmers in April 2022.

The collaborative project with Shimada watermelon farm in Kumamoto Prefecture, southwestern Japan, issued 20 limited edition "MetagriLabo Suica Collection" NFTs, with actual watermelons and other benefits delivered to those who purchased them.

The expanding community has since issued similar agricultural NFTs for tomato, grape and rice farmers, with the sale of a collection of citrus-themed NFTs to support the revitalization of Nakajima, an island off the coast of Ehime Prefecture, one of its latest projects.

Going from cyber space to outer space, Tenchijin Inc., a startup of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency founded in 2019, has been utilizing AI and data collected from satellites to assess land for optimal rice production.

Known as Compass, the system analyzes big data to identify ideal conditions and cultivation methods for growing higher-quality rice in a global environment altered by climate change.

The technology, which uses machine learning, takes "into account everything from environmental to socioeconomic factors to the characteristics of purposed land use," Tenchijin CEO Yasuhito Sakuraba said in a press release.

Back on Earth, Nagano Prefecture-based startup Emi Lab is developing a mobile cube-shaped pesticide spraying robot on a made-to-order basis, with each unit priced at around 2 million yen ($15,600).

The four-wheeled vehicles, which are designed to do some heavy lifting for aging farmers, are more effective at reaching the underside of leaves than airborne drones and can also be operated remotely.

After a route is set, the robot tracks its location using GPS and moves at walking pace. Powered by a rechargeable battery, it can carry up to 100 liters of chemical solution.

"We want to make (the robots) a success story so that farmers will be eager to use them," said 43-year-old Emi Lab founder Katsuto Arai.

© Kyodo News