In the 1960s, India faced a pressing need to increase food production to support its rapidly growing population. This pivotal moment in the history of Indian agriculture marked the transition to a modern, industrialised farming system driven by technology and innovation. Visionary agricultural scientist M S Swaminathan played a pivotal role in this transformation, introducing high-yielding variety (HYV) seeds, mechanised farm tools, irrigation facilities, pesticides, and fertilizers. This shift, commonly referred to as the Green Revolution, brought prosperity to farmers, raised their incomes, and averted potential food shortages. However, even after decades of progress, there is still untapped potential in Indian agriculture.

Let’s take rice as an example. Despite the widely celebrated Green Revolution in the 1970s, India’s rice yields remain below global averages. While rice yields per kilogram per hectare have increased from 688 in 1950-51 to 2,809 in 2021-22, these numbers fall significantly short of the world’s average, which is nearly double that of India. Even when compared to regions with traditionally lower yields, such as many parts of Africa, India’s output is underwhelming. This disparity underscores the need for a new wave of innovation and methods to unlock the full potential of agricultural productivity in India.

Defining precision agriculture

Precision agriculture is a term often used to describe a farming approach that leverages technology and advanced tools to reduce cultivation costs and increase productivity. However, at its core, precision agriculture is about precisely assessing the needs of crops and fulfilling those needs at the right time. Whether this involves the use of sensors or other technologies is secondary. The primary role of technology in precision agriculture is to enable scalability and consistency. While a highly skilled farmer can manually assess and fulfill crop requirements on a small plot of land, doing so consistently across all crops and plots becomes a challenge. This is where technology, including sensors and satellite data, plays a critical role, enabling large-scale and consistent precision.

Leveraging technology for precise farming

To achieve precision in agriculture, technology and tools must be integrated into various stages of the farming process. The journey begins with the selection of the ideal seeds for a specific region, a decision guided by climate and soil data. This choice is crucial to ensuring a successful harvest. Timing is also a critical factor, as seedlings require specific environmental conditions for optimal growth. Factors such as heavy rainfall immediately after sowing or unseasonable heat can disrupt the planting process. Ensuring accurate irrigation throughout the crop cycle is equally vital. Each growth stage demands different moisture levels, which depend on factors like soil type, crop variety, and specific crop requirements. Proper irrigation can boost yields by up to 30 per cent while conserving water. Remarkably, even with the availability of efficient drip irrigation systems, many farmers continue to over-irrigate, resulting in water wastage and reduced crop yield.

Nutrient management and disease prevention

Farmers often rely on intuition when applying fertilizers, which can lead to either nutrient deficiency or excess. Detecting nutrient needs in advance through the use of nutrient sensors or plant tissue analyzers can prevent such issues and boost crop yields by up to 50%. An alarming statistic is that approximately 30 per cent of India’s crop production is lost annually due to diseases and pests. Predicting disease occurrences in advance and implementing precise protection measures can save both crops and the expenses associated with late intervention and excessive pesticide use. For instance, the Pink bollworm, a major cotton pest in northern States, caused a 30 per cent yield reduction in 2023. With accurate prediction tools, this catastrophe could have been averted.

Precision agriculture in a changing climate.

Climate change poses an additional challenge that precision agriculture tools can address. The timing of treatments and flowering in crops like pomegranates and citrus is shifting due to changing climate patterns. To adapt to these shifts and optimize yields, we require precise data and agricultural tools. Stakeholders, including farmers, agritech companies, and government bodies, must collaborate to harness available technology and enhance India’s agricultural productivity.

The promise of the next farming revolution lies in precision agriculture. By adopting technology and data-driven approaches, India can unleash the untapped potential of its farmlands, ensuring food security, increased farmer income, and environmental sustainability. The transformation of Indian agriculture initiated by the Green Revolution was a significant milestone, but the journey is far from over. As we stand on the precipice of the next farming revolution, the integration of precision agriculture can take Indian farming to new heights, ensuring that every crop reaches its full potential. By reimagining agriculture in a more precise and data-driven manner, India can not only feed its population but also contribute to global food security. The next farming revolution is not just an option; it’s a necessity to meet the challenges of the future.

(The author is co-founder of Fyllo)