Technology has transformed the shape of human existence. From the way we eat to the way we work, from the way we transact to the way we travel, from the way we shop to the way we consume content and even the way we stay connected to our loved ones – technology continues to empower our lives.   

Amidst this backdrop, one sector which has shown some green shoots in the adoption of technology, while still needing a focused and deeper penetration, is agriculture.  

Surging food demand 

 With the world’s population predicted to hit 9.7 billion by 2050, the world’s farmlands will struggle to meet global food demand. This challenge will get more pronounced with the often limited resources for farmers and the changing weather patterns. This global trend will be especially significant in India. 

Just when we need our farmlands to produce more food so that we are self-sufficient to feed 1.66 billion by 2050, climate change and its associated rise in pest attacks will continue to impact yield and farm productivity every year. This along with limited knowledge and access to resources for farmers, declining soil fertility and resource inefficiencies, will lead to an immediate need to spark a new agricultural revolution.  A digital revolution. 

The era of precision agriculture 

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) can enable precision agriculture. Their dissemination among all farmers is crucial. 

Precision agriculture is a calibrated approach to farming that harnesses smart technology to calculate the precise amount of inputs a crop needs. Facilitated by sensor-based IoT devices along with AI and ML algorithms, it empowers farmers with invaluable insights into crop and soil conditions. 

By providing real-time data on optimal timing, quantity and nature of interventions, such as crop protection products and nutritional supplements, technology enables farmers to maximise productivity while minimising resource utilisation, including water - an especially stressed resource today. 

Vineyards, for instance, can use drip irrigation (a precision agriculture practice) to deliver water directly to the grapevine’s roots, minimising water loss. This can be replicated across paddy and sugarcane — which are especially water intensive — as well as other crops. 

India’s oil palm industry is also benefitting from new technology.  Leveraging sensor-based IoT technology, computer programmes are used to identify ideal locations for farms ,while a mobile app then allows farmers to track water use.  Similarly, processors can analyse soil health and offer recommendations on fertiliser use, all through separate mobile applications. 

Safety against disease outbreaks and pest attacks 

In addition to precision agriculture, AI and other cutting-edge technologies can help detect disease outbreaks and pest attacks.  Right from the start of the crop cycle, the use of drones and image recognition before pests have decimated the entire crop,  allowing farmers to nip such threats in the bud. This can prove especially beneficial for BT Cotton, currently facing an onslaught from the pink bollworm. 

Technology can also empower farmers to adopt climate resilient practices, protecting their crops from the erratic swings in weather by helping them plan crop cycles better. 

For instance, breakthroughs in robotics and AI can lead to more frequent and optimal time harvesting, reducing the risk of crop loss due to extreme weather. This allows farmers to adopt sustainable practices like the sowing of drought-resistant varieties and resource responsible interventions, thereby bolstering productivity against the impact of climate change

Access to market information, affordable credit 

Technology also enables access to information and improved market access. Volatility in the price of crops makes it difficult for farmers to earn a stable income. Data analysis can solve the problem by providing real-time market information to them. Farmers can, as a result, make informed decisions about what crops to plant, when to plant them and what price to sell them at.  

This direct access to price information can also free farmers from the exploitative practices of middlemen. 

And this brings us to another critical element – access to affordable credit.  

Farmers have for long been excluded from the formal banking system. That has limited them from investing in capital and new technology.  In turn,productivity and income were impacted, further shutting them out of the banking system.  

However, AI-powered algorithms and models can assess farmers’ true creditworthiness and give them access to credit without conventional requirements for collateral.   

Empowerment beyond the farmland

However, there are challenges both on the farmland and off it, that we will have to surmount to spur large-scale technology adoption. 

First, is the relative lack of digital literacy. There is a very pronounced digital divide between rural and urban India. Bridging it is essential, if farmers are to make the most of new-age technology. 

Similarly, internet connections in rural areas are still weak. Thus, infrastructure needs to be established so that farmers can access stable, reliable internet. 

We also need to upskill the agricultural workforce. Technology like drones can replace labour-intensive jobs.  Hence, we need to equip the workforce that will be displaced, as a result, so that they can remain not just employable but move up to higher value jobs. 

The scale of the task is not easy. But,  an active collaboration between the government, private sector, NGOs and farmers can overcome the challenges it presents. In the onslaught of our challenges, like surging food demand and the debilitating effects of climate change, we have no choice but to adapt.By investing in the right technology and making it accessible to our farmers, we can shape a more sustainable and equitable future for them.  

The author is Executive Director & COO – Crop Protection Business, Godrej Agrovet Limited