Making Japanese agriculture a growth industry with active agricultural management through the full use of data.
In Japan, with aging of farmers who have been engaged in high-value-added agriculture, there is increasing difficulty with how to pass down their experiences and techniques. In other countries, enhancement of agricultural productivity and management improvement are promoted by introducing the latest technology to the sector. Efforts to address these issues are also being promoted in Japan.
We interviewed Professor Shinjo about the background, construction and future of his platform WAGRI, a data collection and collaboration platform that shares the data required for agriculture online.
Communication Working Group of GFSI Japan Local Group, hereinafter called GFSI:
First of all, please tell us about what led to the launch of WAGRI.
Professor Atsushi Shinjo, Faculty of Environment and Information Studies, Keio University, hereinafter called Prof. Shinjo:
There is significant data related to agriculture that exists in Japan, but this data exists in pieces with no mutual collaboration of data collection and services. Therefore, presently, this precious data is not fully exploited.
It all started from the thought that linking this disjointed data would bring great benefits. For example, today there are no barriers in exchanging e-mails with people on different mobile phone companies. I felt it was necessary to eliminate all such walls and have a system that enables people to share useful data with one another.
So, about three years ago, we started discussing the future image of agriculture using data with the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, and we currently conduct study sessions every six months.
GFSI: "WAGRI" is a coined term born from a combination of Japanese words, "WA" (Wheel) to link various data and services, and another "WA" (harmony) to promote harmony of community, with an expectation for innovation in the agricultural field. Could you please give us an outline of this agricultural data collaboration platform WAGRI?
Prof. Shinjo: Although various information services related to agriculture have been developed, Japanese agricultural data to date has been a mixture of "collaboration areas" on information that is publicly available and "competitive areas" on added value information. However, now we live in an age where anyone can search for anything on the internet with a smartphone. It is no longer the time to pay a fee for viewing maps and weather data. Therefore, WAGRI decided not to use the existing information communication technologies (ICT) but to create a new interface from the beginning and give it a function.
WAGRI operates in "B to B to C", not in "B to C", and public data such as weather, farmland, and map information are provided on the WAGRI platform. Also, by providing value-added data for a fee, improvement in the services of private companies and the creation of new services is encouraged so that agricultural stakeholders will be able to select and use various services. We believe that this will result in less vendor lock-in for farmers and also lead to an expansion of company services.
GFSI: What kind of data ad services are provided specifically?
Prof. Shinjo: We are currently implementing more than 200 APIs (application programming interfaces) on the condition not to provide B2C for a fee because we are at a research project stage. The APIs are terms that specify the programmes necessary to connect (collaborate) multiple applications. For example, by combining multiple APIs such as weather data and forecast, soil map, and growth prediction systems, it makes it possible to access data that could be beneficial for producers. In the future, we would like to create a "data and service trading market".
GFSI: You are not currently accepting applications, but what benefits will be available for stakeholders such as farmers, distributors and retailers by using WAGRI?
Prof. Shinjo: Not only producers are using WAGRI, businesses such as trading companies and service providers are also using the platform, so the benefits of introducing this will be different for each stakeholder. As for farmers, it enables them to acquire data related to agriculture such as usage standards of agricultural chemicals and conformity checks. We think that if there is a system that automatically collects daily records just from talking, it might lead to a reduced burden of work.
We are therefore considering a speech recognition service. Also, various demonstration experiments are carried out to obtain more useful data such as a response to the problem of pesticide drifts from a neighboring farmhouse. Furthermore, we are planning to offer support tools to enable building APIs without requesting a programmer or an engineer.
GFSI: Is there anything that you consider as an issue?
Prof. Shinjo: We think the key point is how we can shift to a business model in the future. Currently, the collection of data on production is ongoing but it would be difficult to feel the full benefits with only the data on production. We believe it is important to build a "smart food chain" that will make it possible to mutually utilise data from production to distribution, processing and consumption.
GFSI: Could you tell us about the cost aspects such as membership fees and API usage fees, as well as the possibility of using WAGRI for food safety procurement standards such as GAP certification?
Prof. Shinjo: We do not charge fees as we operate with the Cabinet Office budget for this fiscal year. However, for participating companies, royalties will be required after the launch of full-scale operation next year. Regarding the procurement standards for food safety, we think it would be possible to use as a consistent mechanism of smart food chain and HACCP / GAP.
GFSI: How about about the security and accuracy of the data?
Prof. Shinjo: Regarding data security, since I am an expert on cyber security and have been engaged with full awareness, a certain level of security has been ensured. Regarding the accuracy of the data, we guarantee that the entered data will not be tampered with, and as for the guarantee of data itself provided by business operators, responsibility lies with the operators.
GFSI: As agriculture in Japan currently has issues such as aging agricultural workers and lack of successors, what contribution do you think could be made by WAGRI?
Prof. Shinjo: This project was launched with the aim to inherit expert skills and to resolve the issue of the shortage of successors in the agricultural sector. While agricultural technical instructors are not able to give frequent technical guidance, we think we would succeed in transferring expert skills to successors by changing the traditional style of handing over from parent to child, and using WAGRI’s ICT instead. We would like you to imagine that a new form of agricultural community called Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is born through WAGRI. In other words, an agricultural community established online.
GFSI: I think it might be a hurdle for elderly people. What are your thoughts?
Prof. Shinjo: We believe that even the elderly will use WAGRI if they realise the usefulness and profitability of the platform. Moreover, they are likely to work on it actively if it is a matter directly linked to them and their income. For example, in the Kagawa prefecture, an elderly woman has been using the platform with a tablet. Therefore, I do not think that age is a problem. It is as simple as "use if convenient". What determines the convenience is the interface and I think that "income" obtained by using the platform will encourage its use. For that purpose, we are improving the interface through demonstration experiments and we are committed to offering easy-to-use functions such as speech recognition services.
We heard the story of WAGRI and have understood that there are some big changes in store for the agriculture sector. With WAGRI incorporating the latest technology in agriculture, farmers suffering from low productivity and struggling with management will be able to actively engage in agriculture by making full use of agricultural data. From this interview, we can expect agriculture to be a growth industry in Japan. We would like to thank Professor Shinjo, all those involved in WAGRI, and the Cabinet Secretariat for their valuable time.
Read more on WAGRI here.
This post was written and contributed by:
Communication WG of GFSI Japan Local Group
Observers: Cabinet Office, Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Cabinet Secretariat, Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, Japan Meteorological Agency