Entire ecosystem needs to come together to help India’s agriculture sector scale greater heights and achieve its full potential
The weaknesses faced by the global food system were starkly exposed last year due to a combination of factors such as extreme weather events, supply-chain disruptions and geo-political tensions, among others. The seriousness of the challenge is evident from the fact that food security, climate-resilient agriculture, and agri-financing were the central themes of discussions at recent global events like the G20 Summit in Indonesia and the WEF Conclave at Davos. With India taking on the G20 presidency this year, the government has again clearly spelled out that nutrition and food security will be top priorities at G20 meetings this year. The 2023 Union Budget also underlined a strong focus on agriculture with a slew of policy announcements.
I firmly believe that digitization and aggressive technology intervention in India’s agricultural sector are our best bets to drive inclusive growth in the sector and contribute to addressing the challenges faced not just by India but by global food systems. However, to deliver the desired impact and results, all players including the private sector, agri-businesses, governments, international organisations, and development agencies must focus on some critical areas.
Accelerated digitization of agriculture for maximizing visibility and transparency
Digitisation of agriculture is one way to reduce the climate impact of farming as well as addressing the food insecurity concerns. Steps must be taken to accelerate technology investments in Indian agriculture -- leveraging advancements in cloud computing, earth observation, remote sensing, data and AI/ML models -- to help the sector unlock new possibilities and solve real agricultural problems. This can help Indian farmers boost food production and improve profitability and livelihoods.
There should be a strong focus on maximizing the visibility and transparency of food systems. This means combining expertise in areas like data science, digital applications, GIS, agri-science, agronomy, AI/ML models, weather data, IoT, and drones, among others to deliver better visibility and intelligence around the agri-production lifecycle.
Climate adaptation finance, agri-credit and agri-insurance
It is a fact that climate adaptation has been woefully underfunded. This started to change in 2022 with initiatives like PepsiCo’s $1.25 billion 10-year Green Bond and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s pledge of $1.4 billion to help smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia build climate resilience into their work practices. We need to step up agri-financing and sustainability investments to equip the Indian agriculture ecosystem to withstand and combat the impact of climate change.
Crop insurance and access to credit are critical but often overlooked constituents of agriculture. Digitization and technology can play an important role in facilitating this. For example, we can now infer plot boundaries directly from satellite data throughout the crop growing cycle and these could be used to automate the cadastral map updation and land ownership identification. With this, governments, insurance providers, and developmental organizations can undertake insurance underwriting and risk monitoring. For farmers, customised crop-insurance products can be launched for ensuring climate proofing of production by looking at the long-term climate patterns and current weather.
Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana (PMFBY), the flagship Indian government agri-insurance scheme encompassing 250,000 Gram Panchayats across India, is a great example of leveraging technology for impact at scale. The project required states to assess the Crop Cutting Experiment (CCE) in every Gram Panchayat. The government used AI/ML-powered predictive intelligence to conduct this mammoth exercise, which includes regional-level crop identification and phenological growth stages, health, and growth analysis, crop yield forecasts, and real-time insights into on-ground CCE progress. It helped government agencies to carry out insurance underwriting and risk monitoring, introducing custom-made crop insurance products and schemes.
Focus on empowering smallholder farmers
A vast majority of India’s farmers are smallholder farmers who are not easily accessible. Meaningful and enduring transformation of Indian agriculture is not possible unless small farmers at the grassroots level are trained and enabled to adopt smarter, more efficient and sustainable ways of farming. Digitization and intuitive, inexpensive, and easily accessible technology can go a long way in making this happen. The Government of India’s Kisan Drones project to use drones for crop assessment, digitisation of land records, and spraying of insecticides to boost productivity is a great example of making technology more easily available for small farmers. Concerted efforts are required to empower farmers at the grassroots level to become more data-driven, efficient, productive, and climate-resilient.
Building food self-sufficiency and reducing food wastage
The Covid-19 pandemic and the geo-political conflicts in 2022 were an eye-opener that drove home the strategic importance of creating a self-reliant food system. High dependence on a few markets for major crops, staple foods, and raw materials like pesticides and fertilisers leads countries to the risk of disruptions in food production and food insecurity. Governments worldwide are pushing for large-scale adoption of technology and data to help their economy to build self-reliance by increasing productivity, efficiency, predictability and sustainability in the food supply chain.
Reducing food wastage is also a key priority as the world grapples with food insecurity and economic instability. Today, one-third of food produced globally is either lost or wasted at different stages – right from the field to packaging, warehousing and distribution. Technology investments can play a major role in reducing food waste. For example, soil sensors can help monitor soil health to prevent the loss of crops in the field. Digital solutions can monitor the crop lifecycle and send real-time advisories to growers that can help them to reduce wastage in the cultivation process. IoT-enabled connected farming solutions and digital dashboards can enable farmers, suppliers, and processors with end-to-end traceability of food produce/commodities, which in turn can cut food loss in the supply chain. Widespread adoption of digital crop monitoring and smart supply chain models will help our country minimise food loss and wastage across the food chain.
Adoption of climate smart agriculture
Farmers must be educated and incentivised to adopt climate smart agriculture which addresses the interlinked challenges of food security and climate change. It can help achieve several important goals at once, including increased productivity in agriculture, enhanced resilience to weather events and other challenges, increased carbon sequestration, and reduced emissions. For example, using digitisation, data and technology, farmers can select the right crops and seeds, the right time for sowing and harvesting, the optimal use of water resources, and the adoption of the right farming practices. Using real-time data from satellite imagery and on-field IoT devices, farmers can identify over-irrigated or under-irrigated regions and take effective measures to manage optimal irrigation schedules, resulting in higher yield and quality while reducing input costs.
For all this to become a reality and see adoption at scale, the entire ecosystem – agribusinesses, policymakers, technology players, development agencies, governments, and NGOs -- must come together with new initiatives and investments. This can help India’s critical agriculture sector scale greater heights and achieve its full potential.
(Krishna Kumar is Co-Founder & CEO of Cropin, an agritech company)