Alibaba and other retailers rally against China’s impending food crisis

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The race to supply 1.4 billion people with fresh fruit and vegetables is making China’s e-commerce companies attempt to revolutionize centuries-old agricultural practices to secure future supply for their blooming online grocery businesses.

Xi Jinping’s government has long made self-sufficiency in food a “top state issue” as it seeks to avert a looming food crisis.

During the pandemic,the need to modernize China’s 200 million largely small-scale farms took on added urgency as output and logistics disruptions coincided with homebound shoppers turning to Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and other internet retailers for their produce.

Now, some of the country’s largest private companies have joined in with state efforts to help growers boost production, improve food quality and lower prices.

For the e-commerce giants, it’s one way of strengthening their foothold in an online grocery market that’s expected to be worth more than $120 billion by 2023.

In Fujian along the eastern coast, Alibaba has provided chicken farmers with smart bracelets that track the health of their poultry.

Under JD.com Inc.’s guidance, rice growers in China’s arid north have installed smart sensors to gain real-time insights for irrigation.

Out west, scientists in Yunnan are teaming up with Pinduoduo Inc. to use artificial intelligence to automate strawberry planting.

The driving force behind the e-commerce platforms’ push into smart agriculture is the boom in online groceries, which is expected to double to about 820 billion yuan ($127 billion) by 2023 from last year, according to iResearch.

The category overtook consumer electronics as the biggest contributor at JD.com in the first half last year, while Alibaba is making a bigger push into the business by taking a larger stake in hypermart Sun Art Retail Group Ltd.

Meanwhile, a clutch of smaller rivals ranging from Xingsheng Youxuan and MissFresh– both backed by Tencent Holdings Ltd. — to Dingdong Maicai are in the process of raising billions of dollars to grab larger shares of the online fresh foods distribution market.

That prompted state media to warn in December against overcrowding in the sector, saying instead that internet giants with immense data and advance algorithms should do more in technology innovation.

At a time when Chinese leaders are clamping down on monopolies in areas from fintech to e-commerce, smart agriculture is one sphere where the tech giants’ commercial interests are aligned with the national agenda.

In guidelines issued on Sunday, the State Council called for increased private investment to develop modern farming techniques and empower villages using advanced technologies.

Breeding and cultivation sciences were also listed as one of Beijing’s top tech priorities for the next five years, alongside AI, quantum computing and computer chips. JD has said its smart farm projects are at least 50% funded by government subsidies.

Despite the efforts, the growing appetite for fresh fruits and vegetables has left most of China’s traditionally labor-intensive farms — roughly 98% of the 200 million operators are families or small businesses — struggling to keep up.

The country’s restrictions on land ownership and diverse terrain spanning the steppes of Inner Mongolia to the tropical shores of Hainan island in the south make it difficult to implement the industrial-scale farming that’s commonly seen in the U.S. and Europe.

Data from the National Bureau of Statistics also show that about a third of farm workers are aged 55 or older, and the birthrate is at record lows, driving labor costs higher.

Pinduoduo, which raised $6.1 billion in November in part to finance its agricultural innovations, is counting on these efforts to help it quadruple sales of farm products to 1 trillion yuan by 2025.

The company expects the initiatives to help it diversify beyond online retail, as it aims to license cutting-edge farming technology down the road, according to David Liu, vice president of strategy.

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