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In September 2021, the Union Minister Narendra Singh Tomar announced the initiation of the ‘Digital Agriculture Mission 2021–2025’. The initiative aims to leverage a wide range of technologies from AI, blockchain along with drone technology to improve the sector’s overall performance.
“An ecosystem approach was the only way forward to address the agriculture sector holistically”, claims the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare in its report.
Although the initiative is yet to be finalised, the department has constituted an expert task force in charge of consolidating the ‘India Digital Ecosystem of Agriculture (IDEA)’ report.
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(Image source: Consultation paper on IDEA)
This task force is expected to devise a framework for creating ‘Agristack’, that would serve as a foundation to build innovative agri-focused solutions by leveraging digital technologies to improve the overall efficacy of the agricultural sector.
This is a welcome step from the Government of India. Over the last few decades, agriculture has evolved by leveraging technology, transforming the genetics of crops and mechanising farm operations. But, the question we need to ask is whether that would be enough? Despite all the technological advancements, agriculture is among the least digitised industry segments in India.
So far, the government has introduced various digital initiatives to improve the agriculture sector.
For instance, in 2016, the government launched the ‘National Agriculture Market’ (eNAM)—a pan-India electronic trading portal which links the existing Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) mandis to create a unified national market to help farmers sell their products without the interference of middlemen.
In 2013, the government launched the ‘Direct Benefit Transfer’ (DBT) central agri portal to serve as a unified central portal for agricultural schemes across the country. The portal assists farmers in obtaining government subsidies for adopting modern farm machineries.
The policy environment in India too is conducive and is evolving in parallel to suit the emerging needs.
“However, a lot more needs to be done in terms of creating necessary infrastructure—for storage, processing and distribution of agri produce, and for tele-connectivity”, says B Gopalakrishnan, Head–Samunnati Startup Initiative.
The Unified Farmer Service Interface (UFSI) could possibly be the most important building block of IDEA.
UFSI is envisaged to impact the agricultural sector in a similar way to UPI (Unified Payment Interface) changed the payments landscape.
“While UPI has transformed the payment systems by optimising the underlying processes and providing a set of APIs for identification, authentication, and authorisation, UFSI is required to handle multiple types of transactions in the digital agriculture space”, the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare report said.
UFSI would allow various stakeholders such as data providers and data consumers to exchange data in an efficient, transparent and organised manner.
Tech solutions for agricultural challenges
In recent years, the Indian agricultural sector has braved many challenges—chiefly low yields. When compared to developing nations, India’s farm yield is 30~50 per cent lower. Through technology solutions like precision farming which leverages AI, farmers could significantly improve their yields and productivity.
Besides, the Indian agricultural sector has been plagued by chronic problems like inefficient logistics, substandard infrastructure—storage, processing and distribution—resulting in crop wastage as high as 40 per cent.
Rao shares that agriculture in India has also been perennially bogged down with problems of finance, input quality and supplies, agronomy, post-harvest storage, transport and processing, marketing, value to the consumer, environmental degradation, uncertainties due to weather, markets and other factors.
The ‘Digital Agriculture Mission’ is widely believed to have the potential to solve these problems.
Further, in an already turbulent trajectory, ‘climate change’ is wreaking havoc on the very nature of farming operations and its overall outcome—decreasing water supply year on year; degrading arable lands; food insecurity; pest infestation; crop diseases; diminishing yield quality and quantity, the list of challenges seems never ending.
“By leveraging technology and data, ecosystem players can bring significant productivity gains, increase crop quality and yield output, enhance supply chain transparency, reduce food wastage, empower farmer livelihood and enable climate smart agriculture”, emphasises Kunal Prasad.
Challenges in the implementation of digital agriculture
Utilising technology to create a more efficient agricultural sector is the best possible approach to resolve current issues in the agricultural sector but not without its own set of challenges.
E.V.S. Prakasa Rao points out that India’s investment in agricultural research is considerably lower in comparison to its global competitors. In the last two decades, India’s R&D expenditure was merely 0.6~0.7 per cent of its GDP—significantly lower compared to the US (2.8 per cent) and China (2.1 per cent).
In addition, good data is critical for AI models to work efficiently and could prove challenging to collect. “Through multi stakeholder engagements, startups and industries driving digital innovations, there is a need for a strong data ecosystem”, claims Purushottam Kaushik, Head -Centre for Fourth Industrial Revolution, India at World Economic Forum.
Currently, there may be technology solutions that could significantly improve our agricultural sector but delivering these solutions to the end users would still prove to be a challenge since a majority of Indian farmers are small-holders.
Also, lower digital literacy in the grass root level still remains a concern. Most of them still rely on traditional resource-intensive farming techniques. For these farmers to be able to use modern technologies to improve their yields, they would need access to standard infrastructure.
Further, considering a solution provider’s perspective, Rao believes that it is a herculean task to understand the complexity of the environment—variety of crops, climate zones, soil conditions—and to capture this complexity under the digital umbrella.
Other issues like smaller and fragmented landholdings; low literacy levels; poor digital literacy; subpar communication infrastructure; and lack of access to formal financial systems could also emerge as potent challenges in implementing digital agriculture in India.
AI in agriculture
According to a report by the Niti Aayog, AI in agriculture is expected to grow at a rate of 22.5 per cent CAGR and reach a valuation of $2.6 billion by 2025. Presently, AI assists farmers in achieving higher yield through better crop selection, hybrid seed selection and resource utilisation. It is also used to help farmers develop seasonal forecasting models to improve farming accuracy and productivity.
The proposed next step is to make this technology available to a much larger section of the agricultural sector in India.
AI is already helping farmers in different parts of the country in understanding processes in agriculture, creating decision making capabilities and in delivering value added services to the farmers and consumers.
Rao claims that AI solutions could provide traceability to assist the consumer. In the context of Indian agriculture, these solutions could crucially enhance the scope of employment and bridge gaps in delivery channels to provide credit, incentives, subsidies, and insurance to the farmers.
Simultaneously, AI could also be useful for grading and sorting machines; realtime field monitoring and crop yield predictions; accurate price forecasts; monitoring soil moisture; and regulating irrigation, and more.
Digitising the Indian agricultural sector is expectedly an arduous task. Private sector indubitably has an important role to play in the success of such initiatives. Private players could create an immense value for the agriculture sector in delivering digital solutions to farmers and consumers.
Digital agriculture in India can not emerge as a successful enterprise without a healthy private-public partnership. In generic terms, the public sector could focus more on research, infrastructure, policy and support systems while the “private sector could focus more on customisation, dynamical agronomy, value addition and delivery. However, both should work in tandem and involve farmers, Farmer Producer Organisations (FPOs) and consumers”, says E.V.S. Prakasha Rao.
Majority Indian agritech companies aim to provide innovative solutions to address a variety of issues—enhancing traceability, cutting wastage in the supply chain, monitoring real time weather—to suggest actionable advice on pest control and crop disease management.
“Partnerships particularly, PPP are critical to leverage the synergy between the public sector and the new age agtech players. While the former can bring significant experience in the agri sector along with funding, the latter can complement with their tech-driven, new-age solutions”, claims B Gopalakrishnan.
Purushottam Kaushik, Head-Centre for Fourth Industrial Revolution, India at World Economic Forum, also emphasised on the importance of sandboxes—“In partnership with Agri universities, research institutions sandboxes are required for co-innovations and validation of agriculture innovations before scaled adoption.”