Robots may be the solution to replace Japan's ageing farmers

A farmer plants rice seedlings in a paddy field in Katori, Chiba Prefecture, Japan, on May 9, 2013.
A farmer plants rice seedlings in a paddy field in Katori, Chiba Prefecture, Japan, on May 9, 2013. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) - As the average age of farmers globally creeps higher and retirement looms, Japan has a solution: robots and driverless tractors.

The Group-of-Seven agriculture ministers meet in Japan's northern prefecture of Niigata this weekend for the first time in seven years to discuss how to meet increasing food demand as ageing farmers retire without successors.

With the average age of Japanese farmers now 67, Agriculture Minister Hiroshi Moriyama will outline his idea of replacing retiring growers with Japanese-developed autonomous tractors and backpack-carried robots.

US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has warned that left unchecked, ageing farmers could threaten the ability to produce the food the world needs.

The average age of growers in developed countries is now about 60, according to the United Nations. Japan plans to spend 4 billion yen in the year through March to promote farm automation and help develop 20 different types of robots, including one that separates over- ripe peaches when harvesting.

"There are no other options for farmers but to rely on technologies developed by companies if they want to raise productivity while they are graying," said Mr Makiko Tsugata, senior analyst at Mizuho Securities Co. in Tokyo. "The government should help them adopt new technologies."

The meeting will also be attended by ministers from other countries, including Germany's Mr Christian Schmidt, Italy's Mr Maurizio Martina, and Canada's Mr Lawrence Macaulay.

Britain is represented by Mr George Eustice, parliamentary under secretary, and France by Mr Thierry Dana, ambassador to Japan.

Mr Moriyama said at the beginning of a bilateral meeting with Mr Vilsack on Saturday that he wants to serve the guests premium Kobe beef, which Japan wants to promote overseas.

The amount of uncultivated farmland in Japan almost doubled in the past two decades, reaching 420,000ha in 2015, as farmers retired, data from the ministry show. About 65 percent of growers are 65 years or older.

The dearth of young people willing to take up farming has increased concerns that Japan's reliance on food imports will deepen, with the nation already getting about 60 percent of its food supplies from overseas.

Kubota Corp., Japan's largest maker of agricultural machinery, has already developed its first prototype autonomous tractor for use in rice paddies. Equipped with a global positioning system, the vehicle cultivates fields and fertilizes after checking soil conditions. Iseki & Co. and Yanmar Co. are also developing autonomous tractors and harvesters with Hitachi Ltd. developing systems for farm machinery.

It's not just vehicles. Kubota is also developing and marketing a suit-like device to help farmers harvest and carry fruit and vegetables. The ministry expects the robots, which can be put on like a backpack, to be able to help elderly and female farmers in field work that is difficult to be automated.

"Applying new technologies to farming will boost the appeal of agriculture to younger people and help increase their participation in the sector," said Mr Takaki Shigemoto, an analyst at JSC Corp.