Tech is key in farming’s future

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Tech is key in farming’s future

Chun Hye-kyung, the former president of the National Institute of Agricultural Sciences (NIAS), a research arm of the Rural Development Administration (RDA) has several nicknames, starting with “first.”

“I was always called the daughter of Dr. Chun Seung-kyu, but now some people say Dr. Chun is the father of Chun Hye-kyung,” she told the JoongAng Sunday in an exclusive interview held just before she stepped down from her position. “I feel a lot of responsibility these days because I’m known as ‘the first woman’ to do something every time I move from one position to another.”

Chun began her career as an agricultural expert at a research institute under the state-run RDA in 1984, and because her father was the first director of the research center, she was thereafter branded as his daughter.

She went on to eventually become an agricultural researcher herself, inspired by her father who studied agricultural chemicals, and has since ditched her old nickname.

In 2008, Chun was the first Korean woman to be promoted as the director general of research policy at the RDA. The following year, she was made the first female director of the National Institute of Crop Science, making her the first woman to lead an agricultural organization.

In 2013, she took office as the first female president of the NIAS.

“There wasn’t a moment when I took advantage, or disadvantage, of being a woman,” Chun said. “I’m glad I can contribute to breaking the glass ceiling in Korean society.”

Q. What is the role of the NIAS?

A. As a state-run research center under the RDA, the NIAS develops a variety of agricultural technologies and puts them into use. Its goal is to improve the country’s agriculture and develop farming villages. Its missions include building machines to support farmers in doing their jobs, studying technologies that improve the agricultural environment, like soil management, and developing high value-added foods by utilizing agricultural resources.

Some argue that Korea’s agricultural technologies have advanced, but others don’t see any difference. Why is that?

It’s because people have misconceptions about farms. They conjure up images of ridges between rice paddies or straw hats. I was very much surprised several years ago when I made visits to some farming villages. They had changed so much. Today, farmers can use satellite imagery to check their crops. Smart greenhouses are under development, utilizing Korea’s cutting-edge information communications technology. In the near future, farmers will be able to manage temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide and nourishment on their smartphones. They will also be able to open or close windows to greenhouses.

With rice, the biggest headache is weeding. The RDA research institute has successfully developed a weeding robot for rice crops last year. After implementing some technical improvements this year, the robot will be used at ordinary farms starting next year.

How far will the mechanization of agriculture reach?

Those who are now living in farming areas are mostly seniors. Many of them say it gets more difficult to do farming, especially upland farming, because machines are not used for upland farming as much as for paddy farming. The average distribution rate of machines for upland farming is 56 percent compared to 98 percent for paddy farming. That is because much of upland farming is taking place on small fields that are not trimmed well. What upland farmers grow and how they do it pretty much differs by region. The NIAS plans to develop a technology that mechanizes the whole process, from plowing to sowing, for upland farming. Fourteen crops, including pepper and garlic, are our first targets. By 2019, the institute aims to raise the mechanization percentage for upland farming up to 70 percent.

Could these cutting-edge technologies be used by elderly farmers?

Since farming villages have strong communities centered on senior populations, relatively young people tend to go together with the elderly even in using new technologies. It would be a good idea if a few individuals excelled at using advanced technologies and had the rest of the community follow suit. The NIAS runs programs to distribute new technologies to certain communities each year. This year, the institute will provide 33 new technologies for 211 farming areas. Together with our institute’s researchers, outside experts and consultants are making efforts to introduce and widely distribute new technologies.

Many consumers are believed to be choosing imported agricultural products because domestic produce is expensive. What’s your opinion?

I think it’s a matter of supply and demand. Consumers may think domestic produce is expensive, but farmers believe they should get paid fairly. I believe the difference in views can be overcome by adjusting supply and demand. Currently, the NIAS is developing a technology that enables an estimation of cultivation and yield situations for rice and other major vegetables. Since homegrown products are definitely fresher and safer in terms of quality, these kinds of strengths that can’t be calculated into prices should be properly highlighted.

What is the latest concern in the agricultural industry?

Globally, abnormal climate change is doing serious harm to agriculture. The NIAS now provides forecast information as part of preparations against damage done by climate change. It has established an early warning system to send signals for unusual weather conditions via mobile phones and the Internet to about 500 farming areas near the Seomjin River. To prevent harmful insects from flying across the borders, the institute has developed a smart capturing system that can detect unusual insects on smartphones or computers on a real-time basis. It’s also making concrete efforts to invent crops that can endure droughts or abnormally high temperatures.

How do you project the future of agriculture?

Agriculture is the real growth engine for the future. I personally believe in the old adage, “Agriculture is the base of politics, and food is like the sky for the people.” I think it’s the same even now. Jim Rogers, a globally renowned investor, advised Korean students to study agriculture during a lecture two years ago. He told them that agriculture would be the most promising industry by the time they retire. IT companies in Silicon Valley are expanding into the Salinas Valley in California, a renowned agriculturally productive region. A high-profile PC maker in China is investing in strawberry farming. These are good examples that demonstrate the potential of agriculture and its future.


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