Japan’s agriculture sector is turning to drone technology as farming communities age and more young people opt for office careers. The agriculture ministry plans to use drones to bring farming into the 21st century and make life easier for the shrinking number of people who work the land. Recent leaps in drone technology mean many tasks can now be carried out by remotely operated aircraft. “Drones are easy to handle and can operate at many different types of site, such as in hilly areas and mountains,” a ministry official said. So much agricultural land across Japan is just being abandoned because there is no one left in these communities to farm it Kevin Short, professor The ministry is to conduct a series of field tests, in which drones will be used to spray crops with pesticides and fertilisers, sow fields, artificially pollinate fruit crops, transport agricultural equipment and conduct airborne surveys of fields hit by drought or disease. Kevin Short, a professor at Tokyo University of Information Sciences who has been involved in government programmes to increase the use of technology in agriculture, said the ageing of the farming labour force had been “a plague on the sector for some years now”. “Young people don’t want to work in jobs that are seen as being dirty, dull and not very well paid, while young women really have no desire to marry into a farming family when they can have the bright lights of the city. Why is Japan so obsessed with being on time? “Inevitably, the number of farmers is falling steeply and they need all the help they can get,” Short said. “Some farmers have been using radio-controlled helicopters for some of the tasks they need, but drones are far more manoeuvrable and – even at the higher end of the market – relatively cheap to buy.” The government initiative comes as part of a package of proposals for the sector. These include changing the law to allow agricultural corporations to purchase small and unprofitable farmland and to amalgamate it, cutting costs through economies of scale, as well as other technological advances, including the introduction of exo-skeleton robotic units that are worn by labourers and enable them to lift heavier weights. “So much agricultural land across Japan is just being abandoned because there is no one left in these communities to farm it, so anything that the government can do to help those who are still farming has to be a good thing,” said Short. According to ministry statistics, Japan had 11 million farmers in 1965 but that figure has fallen to less than 2 million today. Can Japan end its love affair with single-use plastic? Even more worryingly, more than 60 per cent of farmers are over the age of 65 and, because of the often limited returns, a full-time career in agriculture is increasingly a thing of the past. A contracting agriculture sector also has implications for national security. While Japan still produces more than 90 per cent of the rice it consumes, for example, it has to import vast quantities of other everyday staples, such as soybeans and meat. Japan’s food self-sufficiency rate hovers around 40 per cent, meaning that the remaining 60 per cent of the calories that the population needs on a daily basis must come from imported food. The government set a target of a food self-sufficiency rate of 50 per cent by 2020, but the latest figures, for 2017, showed the rate had contracted to just under 38 per cent.