Coronavirus (COVID-19) has brought the world to its knees. Approximately 81% of the global workforce had their workplace fully or partly closed in April of 2020. The agriculture sector was hit pretty hard, especially the food supply chain. The food supply chain connects the farm with the consumer’s table. Processes include manufacturing, packaging, distribution and storage. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), out of the total population in 2019, 26.85% work in the agriculture sector.
Ever since the arrival of the novel coronavirus, many countries have taken measures like shutting their borders to travel and foreign trade  which has helped identify major weaknesses in the the agriculture system such as threats to farmers, as well as highlighting these supply chain weaknesses however, this has emphasized that the use of robotics in this sector may help it to recover from substantial problems such as food shortages, inconsistent food growth and quite possibly revolutionize the supply chain.
Problem 1: Threat to farmers and fishermen due to closed borders.
Ever since major countries have started to shut down their borders to tourists and international trade, the agriculture industry has been in great distress.
The lockdowns as well as restrictions on travelling has immensely contributed to labour shortages, mainly for production of foods that are labour intensive. Such foods include palm oil, vanilla and saffron. These foods are hand picked and require the greatest number of people to harvest them.
Agriculture produce is mainly of a perishable nature and with heavy restrictions on trade with foreign countries, farmers are forced to store their produce for longer periods of time resulting in reduced quality. Production of milk and milk products is an example, where farmers are forced to drain milk after the closures of milk processing companies. According to the Dairy Association, products worth up to NPR 2 billion (approximately 16.7 million USD) have been damaged and products worth up to NPR 5 billion are still in stock but are close to deterioration.
Problem 2: The supply chain weakness.
According to Investopedia, “A supply chain is a network between a company and its suppliers to produce and distribute a specific product to the final buyer. This network includes different activities, people, entities, information, and resources.” In simpler terms, the steps it takes to get the product or service to the customer.
When the supply chain is disrupted, to be able to see how the problem is affecting the entire chain becomes important as this will enable us to understand the impact of the issue and what actions are necessary.
Due to the fact that most supply chains are based on transactional and a reactive model [may wish to explain these models], an order takes time to get through an entire supply chain. This hints that it may take weeks if not months or years to fix supply chains and may take some time to get the current inventory out of the supply chain once we all enter a stronger chain.
Solution 1: Controlled Environment Agriculture.
A controlled environmental agricultural system is a technology based approach to food growth. Hydroponics and aeroponics are just two of the many forms of agriculture that is available.
This is a method of growing plants in an enclosed environment using technology to ensure optimal growing conditions. Flexibility is one of the key advantages of controlled environment agriculture as it can be done in almost any location, whether it is the desert, or even outer space. In addition, this can be done any time of the year as optimal conditions needed for the plants to grow are kept consistent throughout.
Hydroponics is a soilless growth medium used to grow plants. A nutrient solution is used so the plant spends more time growing upwards and less time spending energy growing roots to look for food.
Aquaponics involves spraying a mist of a nutrient solution to the roots of the plant. The unabsorbed mist then returns to a tank for recycling, preventing water logging and increases oxygen delivered.
Controlled environment agriculture can be used on a wide scale basis to grow food. The robotics involved can help speed up the process by keeping all plant requirements at an optimal level. These applications can be scaled to enable individual homes to each keep a micro-farm operational all year-round. The technologies connect various nutrient, moisture and temperature readers with artificial intelligence monitoring systems that can self-correct to ensure greater crop retention and overall crop health.
Solution 2: Robotics in the Supply Chain.
A probable solution to fixing a weak supply chain may be found in robotics.
Tech innovations such as artificial intelligence, 5G, supply chain analytics, robotic automation and many others will help revolutionize the supply chain. Introducing robotics into this field will mitigate shocks to the economic systems. If applied to the current case, it will help workers stay safe by reducing virus transmission.
An example of applied automation that has been the most adaptable: the Toyota Principle of autonomation. This principle involves automating the system by 80-90% and keeping 10-20% for human expertise to refine the operations. In Toyota factories, all parts made have to meet certain quality standards. When a machine starts producing defective products, it detects and stops on its own resulting in products being manufactured that satisfy the quality requirements. When the machine stops it alerts the operators who can then use another machine while the defective one is repaired.
This can be implemented in agriculture when growing plants in a space. When hydroponic technology starts going off track by any chance in measurements or if any other problems arise, the operators can be notified to ensure that all plants are kept healthy.
Due to shut borders, problems such as threats to farmers and weak supply chains have become more prevalent. A solution to these problems can be found in the world of robotics. This may help solve problems such as food shortages and may help revolutionize global food supply chains. It’s now up to the innovators to take over and devise new ways to integrate simple, affordable, easy-to-deploy robotics into existing agriculture settings.
Alikhan Nazarani is student at the University of Texas at Austin. His interests are in finance, accounting, business, marketing and stock trading. Alikhan also has a passion for AI & robotics which he fuses with his business interests to learn more about applications of these technologies in a fast-paced society that is now transforming more significantly than ever before. Alikhan is an avid reader, writer and a fantastic cook.
- Wootton, H. (2020, June 01). Pandemic exposes supply chain threats to farmers. Retrieved August 16, 2020, from https://www.afr.com/companies/agriculture/pandemic-exposes-supply-chain-threats-to-farmers-20200522-p54vhr
- COVID-19 and the food and agriculture sector: Issues and policy responses. (2020, April 29). Retrieved August 16, 2020, from http://www.oecd.org/coronavirus/policy-responses/covid-19-and-the-food-and-agriculture-sector-issues-and-policy-responses-a23f764b/
- Scientific Electronic Library Online. (n.d.). Retrieved August 16, 2020, from http://www.scielo.org.pe/scielo.php?pid=S2077-99172020000100003
- Employment in agriculture (% of total employment) (modeled ILO estimate). (n.d.). Retrieved August 16, 2020, from https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SL.AGR.EMPL.ZS?end=2019
- Q&A: COVID-19 pandemic – impact on food and agriculture. (n.d.). Retrieved August 16, 2020, from http://www.fao.org/2019-ncov/q-and-a/impact-on-food-and-agriculture/en/
- NepaliSansar. (2020, April 16). COVID-19 Inflicts NPR 2 Bn Loss on Nepal Dairy Industry! Retrieved August 16, 2020, from https://www.nepalisansar.com/business/covid-19-inflicts-npr-2-bn-loss-on-nepal-dairy-industry/
- Al Jazeera. (2020, June 03). Coronavirus: Travel restrictions, border shutdowns by country. Retrieved August 16, 2020, from https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/03/coronavirus-travel-restrictions-border-shutdowns-country-200318091505922.html
- Coronavirus: Four out of five people’s jobs hit by pandemic. (2020, April 07). Retrieved August 16, 2020, from https://www.bbc.com/news/business-52199888
- Barclay, E. (2014, September 01). These 5 Crops Are Still Hand-Harvested, And It’s Hard Work. Retrieved August 16, 2020, from https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2014/09/01/344354403/these-5-crops-are-still-hand-harvested-and-its-hard-work?t=1597513414989
- Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA): Hydroponics. (2017, July 18). Retrieved August 16, 2020, from http://freshboxfarms.com/articles/controlled-environment-agriculture-cea-hydroponics/
- Verticalroots. (2020, March 10). What is hydroponic farming? Why use hydroponics? Retrieved August 16, 2020, from https://www.verticalroots.com/the-what-and-why-of-hydroponic-farming/
- Kenton, W. (2020, July 16). How Supply Chains Work. Retrieved August 16, 2020, from https://www.investopedia.com/terms/s/supplychain.asp
- Frikkee, T. (2020, May 12). Covid-19 crisis has laid bare weaknesses in supply chains. Retrieved August 16, 2020, from https://www.ft.com/content/9bb6939d-6a31-4a33-bb62-ecbf74da8491
- Cordon, C. (2020, May 05). A post COVID-19 outlook: The future of the supply chain. Retrieved August 16, 2020, from https://www.imd.org/research-knowledge/articles/A-post-COVID-19-outlook-The-future-of-the-supply-chain/
- Headquarters, P. (n.d.). An Introduction to the Toyota Production System and Principles. Retrieved August 17, 2020, from https://insights.btoes.com/lean-resources/what-is-jidoka-toyota-production-system