How prepared is South Korea for hi-tech agriculture?

Korea is facing a number of challenges in the efforts to develop hi-tech agriculture and smart farming. The small farmland sizes, lack of cooperation and lack of entrepreneurship between the stakeholders are amongst these challenges. Although the ambition of the government is to modernize the industry with new policies, the dynamic between the stakeholders could be a setback in the coming years. The Netherlands embassy in Seoul shared the lessons learnt in the Netherlands during  a seminar.

Smart farming

Smart farming in Korea

Korea’s core agricultural policy focus under the master policy on the Fourth Industrial Revolution is “smart farming”. Smart farming in Korea aims at using ICT, hi-tech systems and machinery. In the Netherlands this simply referred to as hi-tech agriculture which is different than smart farming.

Unlike other sectors in Korea, the Korean agriculture is still under-developed and has suffered from lack of labor as famers are getting old and young generation avoids farming. To overcome this obstacle, Korea would like to change old-fashioned agriculture to more efficient smart agriculture, and develop agriculture as another engine for the Korean economy.

However, South Korea seems to be facing different barriers in this development. Farmers are still reluctant to join the efforts to modernize agriculture, and technology companies have a tendency to rely on subsidies without entrepreneurship. This in turn means that the policy cannot have its full effect and rarely trigger development or innovation in the sector.

Lessons learned from the Dutch agriculture

Mr. Hojin Kang, Agricultural Advisor in the Netherlands embassy in Seoul gave a presentation on the 27th of August during the Smart Farm Strategy Conference organized by Electronic Times, titled “Lessons learned from the Dutch agriculture and requirements for the development of smart farming in Korea”. The conference was held online by broadcasting presentations live for the first time due to the Covid-19. Around 300 participants joined the conference. Out of 6 presenters, Mr. Kang was the only presenter who introduced a foreign (the Netherlands) case.

Mr. Kang pointed out in his presentation that Korea had a tendency to focus on smart farming components, for instance; climate control system, AI, Big Data and machinery. Although smart farming has been a focus in Dutch agricultural policies in the past, it is now merely an instrument to achieve the present sustainable agricultural policies. In the course of efforts to increase productivity, sustainability, and farmers’ income, hi-tech agriculture and smart farming in the Netherlands has been developed naturally. The Dutch efforts vary from land consolidation to education, R&D and triple helix (government-private sector-research) cooperation.

The farmland area per farm in Korea is only 1.6 ha, whereas in the Netherlands is 33.8 ha. The average age of farmers in Korea is 66, whereas in the Netherlands is around 54. Rural income in Korea is only 60% of urban income. In this situation, Korean farmers cannot afford to think about new things such as smart technology, environment and cooperatives.

Mr. Kang believes that it is beneficial for Korea to concentrate on innovation for agricultural land, people and organization first, subsequently laying groundwork for the development of hi-tech agriculture / smart farming.

For innovation in agricultural land, the focus should be switched from land productivity to labor productivity. Labor productivity means how much income farmers can earn, while land productivity means how many agricultural products farmland can produce. Korea can benefit from more focus on farmer’s income by focusing on labor productivity. The Netherlands has conducted a land consolidation project on this subject. Korean can learn this from the Netherlands through G2G cooperation.

For innovation in agricultural people, it is important to educate and train researchers and farmers. Korea still needs to acquire state of the art knowledge and experience for hi-tech agriculture and smart farming. Although Korean government and research institutes are endeavoring to develop their own technology, the level is still lagging behind those countries with advanced agriculture. Dutch knowledge institutes and training centers can help Korea in this development.

For innovation in organization, Korea can benefit from learning to create synergy through cooperation. Compared to its economic competitiveness, Korea does not score high in the ranking of Social Capital which is a good indication of making synergy through cooperation. This is an obstacle in public-private partnership or cooperation between farmers. Korea can learn the improved ways of cooperation as well as agricultural technology itself by working with the Netherlands through bilateral projects such as demo-farm projects and co-researches.