(Editor's Note: This is the second installment in a series of Yonhap interviews with key officials on South Korea's major policies)
By Kang Yoon-seung
SEOUL, May 15 (Yonhap) -- South Korea aims to become an agricultural powerhouse by building up a smart ecosystem that takes full advantage of its prowess in information and communications technology (ICT), the country's farm minister said Wednesday.
The concept of smart farming centers on application of cutting-edge technologies, such as big-data, to provide optimized cultivating environments for various crops that can lead to an improvement in produce quality and more efficient management of resources.
"Smart farming solutions are expected to help the agricultural industry overcome existing challenges, such as the intensifying global competition and the aging workforces in rural areas," Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs Lee Gae-ho said in an interview with Yonhap News Agency.
The concept goes beyond the simple automation of facilities, with the goal being to minimize the role played by people and to permit farmers to effectively control all aspects of growing their crops through smartphones and other mobile devices equipped with specialized apps.
Smart farms are beneficial in terms of the environment as well, as they cut the use of pesticides and other resources via their accurate data-based management. In a nutshell, smart farms are like environment-friendly cars running on autopilot mode, Lee said.
"Smart farms will not only reduce physical labor of farmers and risks from plant diseases or natural disasters but will contribute to improving the quality of goods harvested, leading to better income for agricultural households," Lee added. The minister said farmers will be freed from carrying out routine, time consuming chores.
The policymaker claimed smart farming solutions are especially suitable for South Korea, which has a strong ICT base.
Asia's fourth-largest economy took its first step to promote the smart farming initiative in 2014 to cope with the stagnant incomes of local agricultural households and the unwillingness of young people to work on farms.
Despite being a latecomer, South Korea has made notable progress over the past five years, with local smart farms experiencing a 30-percent hike in their productivity and a 17-percent decrease in the outbreak of plant diseases, according to the ministry.
On the back of the policy efforts, around 48 percent of the country's modernized greenhouses have adopted a smart farming solution, with the government seeking to push up the figure to 70 percent in 2022.
"The core aspect of a successful smart farming solution is a rich database that can create an effective big-data system," Lee said adding that such features makes tech-savvy South Korea a potential leader in the field.
"Currently, South Korea is trailing advanced countries by some four years in technological terms. But we plan to narrow this gap within two years by accumulating more data," Lee said.
To speed up the development of the country's smart-farming industry, the country plans to invite younger people to join the movement, and they can help make the local agricultural industry more sustainable, the minister said.
The South Korean economy has been facing a major hurdle in its long-term growth as it became an "aged society" in 2017, with the ratio of people aged 65 or older hitting 14 percent of its 50 million population.
The trend has had a particularly harsh effect on labor-intensive segments, with the exodus of younger people from rural areas becoming a major concern for farms.
"Younger people are more familiar with the latest technologies, it is important to attract them to take parts in the smart farming initiative," Lee said.
In line with the plan, the government plans to establish the so-called smart farm valley in four locations in the country by 2022, where young farmers can rent plots of land for smart farms at reasonable fees for three years before deciding on their future course of action in the sector.
The government plans to invest around 64 billion won (US$54 million) on each smart farm valley, which aims to foster 500 young agricultural experts by 2022. The tenants of the smart farm valleys will be provided with low-interest loans to minimize their financial burdens.
Other subsidies include special loans that will be provided to young farmers who have failed in their first attempt at smart farming.
"The valleys will encompass all activities, ranging from producing crops, carrying out research, and accumulating experiences," the minister said.
In the long run, Lee said South Korea can share its know-how of smart-farm operation with countries, especially those in the Middle East, which calls for farming technologies that can fully utilize limited resources, such as water and arable land.
Critics have said the government's smart agriculture initiative can marginalize existing farmers due to the high cost of adopting such infrastructures. Others express concerns that the possible boom in smart farming will hurt owners of small-sized farms as the increase in the supply can weigh down produce prices.
Lee said although adopting smart farming solutions may be burdensome at present, such costs will continue to decrease down the road when the industry achieves economies of scale and makes such solutions more accessible for many more farmers.
Smart farming solutions are cost-efficient in the longer run, as farms will be able to harvest more high-quality produce, leading to higher incomes, he said.
"The success of the smart-farming initiative rests on the participation of young adults," Lee said. "The agricultural industry will continue to play a bigger role in the world amid the increasing population coupled with climate changes. We encourage more people to show interest in smart farming."