With contributions from Eliza Gkritsi

The technological development that has taken over China’s cities is finally hitting rural areas. With the help of government subsidies, farmers are acquiring drones to automate water and pesticide spraying as they deal with an uphill battle against labor shortages brought by urbanization.

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Chinese farmers use more pesticides relative to land size than any other country in the world, three times more than their US or European counterparts, TechNode calculated based on data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. These pesticides end up in the soil and produce, which can have adverse effects on the environment and public health.

Farmers can reduce the need for 30% to 40% of pesticides, and 90% of water by using XAG drones, Justin Gong, co-founder and vice president at the Guangzhou-based company, told TechNode. The firm’s drones are fully automated: farmers have only to press a button and artificial intelligence will do the rest.

The use of drones can also mitigate the diminishing labor force in China’s agricultural industry. “People under 50 are basically not farming. No one will be farming in the future,” said Huang Jianfeng, a rice farmer from eastern Zhejiang province.

Saving on labor costs, farmers can get a return on their investment. Three people will spray about 1.33 hectares in a day. In contrast, drones can cover more than 6.7 hectares at the same time. “If accumulated over a long period of time, the cost of using drones is even lower,” Guo Jianhua, a lemon farmer in southern Guangdong province, told TechNode.

Local governments provide subsidies of varying levels to encourage tech purchases. Huang told TechNode that authorities returned half of the money he used to buy the 24 drones he operates.

But the use of tech doesn’t necessarily improve the sustainability of farming, said Sacha Cody, a former fellow at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology who led research on agricultural automation. It only distributes the chemicals more efficiently, he said.

The drive for efficiency in food production is guiding policy, meaning the government is more focused on feeding China’s growing population and not finding a new way of farming with long-term sustainability.

This overarching attitude is true to a certain extent, according to Lin Yifei, assistant professor of environmental studies at New York University’s Shanghai campus. At the same time, “we see a lot of conflicting observations on the ground about which direction China is going in the context of sustainability,” he said.

25-year-old Guo, the Guangdong lemon farmer, shared Lin’s uncertainty, saying he doesn’t know how his family’s future will look.

“I don’t have plans,” he said, “We don’t know what will happen in 10 years when they grow up, maybe they don’t need to do manual labor, maybe there will be a fully automatic system in the future. It’s hard to say.”

Getting precise about agriculture drones, one piece at a time

Jiayi Shi is the Shanghai-based visual reporter helping provide multimedia elements about China’s fast-changing technology and culture. She holds a B.A. in Convergence Journalism from the University... More by Shi Jiayi

Eliza is TechNode's community listening reporter at the Shanghai office. She acts as a link between the editorial team and TechNode Squared members. She holds a Double MSc in Global Media and Communications... More by Eliza Gkritsi

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