Technology In Agriculture : Green Shoots Sprouting

Jun 01, 2019 in Agritech
Posted By : Ram Nair

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Agriculture has been the backbone of India even after 70 years of independence. Nearly half the population is engaged in agriculture. India is poised to overtake China as the most populous country by 2030. Food security would be one of the biggest challenges for India policy planners with all the myriad challenges that are incumbent in a diverse country like India. But as is wont let us start with some pertinent numbers. 

India has 126 mn hectares under cultivation which constitutes almost 50% of land in India with a productivity of 2101 kg/ hectare. To put in perspective, for rice India produces 3721 kg/hectare while China produces 6775 kg/hectare. India has 17% of the world population but only 4% of the world’s fresh water sources thus making it a water stressed country. China produces more than India with lesser consumption of chemical fertilisers. So is the future bleak for India? This is where we hark back to an earlier time to the late 18thcentury Cassandra who went by the name of Robert Malthus. Malthus formulated the law of diminishing returns and predicted the humans would run out of food by 19thcentury. The maths was correct but he had not factored in the advent of technology in preventing mass famine.

The principles still hold true and through this article we will explore the advent of technology in agriculture especially in the Indian context

There is an increasing urgency to have a sustainable scalable clean agriculture. There are several facets to this need. We shall explore some of them and outline the technologies that shall enable this.

 

Water conservation

A combination of agroponics and artificial intelligence is being increasingly used to enable water efficient crops. AI is used to identify water requirements of crops so that requisite  amount of water is released to the crops at the right time. The use of AI removes human judgement and a high degree of automation along with increasingly high quality data sets is helping farmers meet their objectives. At the macro level remote sensing satellites from ISRO have been used for many years to predict crop patterns at the aggregate levels. But now these technologies are being used at the unit level to micromanage water consumption. A combination of Computer Vision, cloud based AI and cheaper data communication is going make a revolution in the way agriculture is going to happen in the near future.

 

Pesticide/Fertiliser

Increased usage of fertilisers and pesticides over the years has resulted in serious soil degradation and pesticide resistant insects and weeds. Also the health dangers posed by indiscriminate use of chemicals is now proven in many medical studies. The demand for organic food has been increasing exponentially over the years and is expected to be norm and not the exception. Drones are now being used to identify special shrubs/stalks which require infusion of natural fertilisers/pesticides using AI. In a recent development Wadhwani Institute of Artificial Intelligence was awarded a 2 million USD grant for using basic smart phone technology in conjunction with cloud based AI computing to identify pests in cotton farms in India. Another interesting application developed in IIT Mumbai envisages very cost efficient probes that are inserted into the soil and captures data about the soil composition and is then transmitted to a central server for analysis and action in real time

Vertical/Indoor Farming

The need for increased productivity is slated to be met by vertical/indoor farming. Vertical/indoor farming is primarily defined as farming in a closed environment in an industrial environment. Bowery Farming, a US based firm, uses robotics and AI driven artificial lighting, humidifiers and other input drivers to grow crops in an industrial setup. It claims by using these technologies it uses 95% less water than traditional farming practices. Also since these crop ‘factories’ can be located near the cities the carbon footprint is reduced considerably. In India some startups are already working on using IoT for efficient use of farming inputs to increase productivity

 

Sorting /Grading

There is a crying need for standardization of agriculture produce. Traditional methods involves human intervention translating into lower productivity, errors and higher escalating labor costs. Using AI and mechanical actuators the sorting and grading process can be automated to a large extent. Using AI , flawed produce which is not visible to the human eye can be segregated at the farm level itself thereby increasing predictability and availability. Indian startups like Occipital and Intello Labs are working on leveraging AI to sort and grade select products.

 

Supply chain/ cold chain

Inefficient supply chain and logistics translates into greater food wastage and thereby higher costs. Using advancement in material sciences and energy conservation, startups are addressing the challenges in the supply chain domain. Stellapps, a Bengaluru based startup is using IoT to enable the supply chain for dairy in India. 

 

Packaging Innovation

With changing demographics, the need for convenient eco-friendly innovative packaging has increased over the years. In a nuclear family driven setup the need to obviate ‘negative labor’ , in other words, cutting chopping and cooking labor has driven innovation. Steamable pouches, microwavable bags and cut frozen vegetables in resuable biodegradable pouches are all finding their way to the modern shopper. Id Foods, a Bengaluru based company has come out with innovative packaging for filter coffee decoction. One shall see more innovation in the packaging space in the coming years

 

Meat substitutes

With higher carbon footprint and water consumption for livestock, companies are increasingly look at plant and insect-based proteins as meat substitutes. Also veganism as a lifestyle choice with corollary need for sufficient protein is driving growth in this space. Lab grown meat is the next big thing on the horizon. Research institutes in India are working on meat substitutes as we speak.

 

As can be seen, there are several areas where cutting edge technology is and will be deployed to address the farming challenge that our planet faces. And India will be at the forefront in addressing these issues. With 43 different agro climactic zones, India is in a unique position to create solution not only for its own population but also address it on a global scale. Exciting times ahead and literally food for thought!!!

 

Ram is a serial entrepreneur and a startup investor. He also runs half marathons awkwardly and treks more awkwardly

 

 

 


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