Pinduoduo, one of China’s largest e-commerce companies, is hosting the third Smart Agriculture Competition on Chongming Island in Shanghai. The competition challenges four finalist teams to grow high-quality lettuce in 90 days without sunlight or soil.
Each team is comprised of agriculturalists, data scientists, and plant engineering scientists who will employ interdisciplinary technologies such as artificial intelligence and agricultural planting to cultivate Crunchy lettuce, a variety known for its crispy and sweet taste, within a closed container environment.
The winning team will be judged by their ability to produce higher yields of better lettuce while using lower energy consumption, earning them the championship title.
Planting lettuce via AI
Lettuce is one of the most popular and widely consumed green leafy vegetables. However, in China, the wholesale price of lettuce is significantly affected by seasons. Data from the Ministry of Commerce showed that lettuce prices are higher during the Spring Festival period and early autumn while a bit lower in summer.
From 2019 to 2021, the wholesale price of lettuce recorded the highest price of RMB 6.81 (about $1) per kilogram in November 2021, which is near twice the lowest price of RMB 3.62 during this period.
It generally costs between RMB 4 and RMB 8 to produce one kilogram of ordinary lettuce. Still, some plant factories will consume 10 degrees of electricity to produce a kilogram, which makes the cost goes up to RMB 20.
In contrast to traditional outdoor planting, the four outstanding teams are practicing “vertical farming,” which refers to simulating the growing environment of water, sunlight, and temperature required by agricultural plants via AI algorithms to improve crop growth land utilization.
CyberFarmer, a team of six members from a key laboratory of China Agricultural University, revealed their idea of fine-tuned management based on feedback obtained from real-time monitoring of lettuce growth conditions and then transforming the growing experience into a decision-making algorithm. This team won the AI category in the first Pinduoduo Smart Agricultural Competition.
“The future of facility agriculture should be a cross-disciplinary complex, which is supported by a large number of sensors and big data algorithms, thus changing the mainstream experience-based agricultural guidance at this stage,” said Xu Dan, the leader of LettUs Grow, one of the teams that entered the final round of the competition.
Megacities like Beijing and Shanghai have more developed agricultural and logistical infrastructure, but a variety of factors can still constrain vegetable supply. Vertical farming, which is favored by tech companies as well as venture capitalists in past years, could lead to a stable and sustainable food supply if it is eventually commercialized.
However, vertical farming in containers currently requires excessive energy consumption. In this competition, the energy consumption for regulating each environmental element will be reflected in the numbers on water and electricity meters. The most important criterion is to reduce energy consumption as much as possible while maintaining lettuce yield and quality.
The Shanghai Jiao Tong University team said their goal is to find the ideal conditions for plant growth while increasing production by more than 40% and reducing energy consumption by over 25% compared to conventional plant factories.
Pinduoduo’s agricultural efforts
Pinduoduo has hosted the Smart Agriculture Competition since 2020, hoping to drive innovation and sustainability in China’s agricultural sector. The winning team has to prove that the management model they developed is commercially viable.
An intelligent decision strategy for growing strawberries, created by teams from past competitions has already been successfully applied to actual agricultural production in China’s southwestern Yunnan province.
According to published reports, a farmer in Yunnan achieved an RMB 30,000 to 40,000 yield increase per season and saved nearly RMB 4,000 in fertilizer costs through an artificial intelligence farming system developed by the team. In the northern province of Liaoning, a person can manage 7-8 barns while doubling the yield with the help of the system.
Over the years, the Shanghai-based firm has continued to invest heavily in agriculture – one of the most fundamental sectors of the country’s economy.
Agriculture touches everyone’s life, yet it is still low in digitization. Therefore, the company’s effort to digitize this sector may bring itself more opportunities. The company also sees it as a way to give back to society by empowering agriculture with digital technology and artificial intelligence in the long run.