Opinion

Some smart solutions to farm distress

Ram Kaundinya | Updated on January 27, 2018 Published on December 14, 2017

Data, analytics and digitisation can mitigate risks related to crop insurance, credit availability and prices

Ag Tech has been in the news. A lot is being talked about applying digital technology, machine learning, artificial intelligence, ICT and so on to agriculture. Modern technological tools make it possible for us to provide solutions that would not have been possible otherwise.

Problem areas

There are two problems farmers face that we need to address: risk and profitability.

The risk-bearing capacity of the farmer has been declining for a long time. His financial wherewithal is so low that failure of a single crop can throw him into distress and push him to suicide. Three areas of risk stand out.

(a) Drought resulting in complete crop failure. Lack of access to irrigation is a killer. We need to improve the efficiency of water usage in agriculture. Flood irrigation must be replaced with precise application systems like drip and hose reel for 50-70 per cent water-saving. We need to provide a water ambulance service for irrigation purposes. We should progressively replace transplanted paddy with direct seeded rice so that we can save a humongous amount of water. On the technology front there’s a water-use efficiency gene which can save water up to 30 per cent. Once approved it will provide relief to farmers in about 100 million hectares of rainfed cultivation in India. Modern sensors help us track soil moisture and regulate irrigation.

(b) Natural disasters like rain, floods and cyclones can wipe out ready-to-harvest crops. This can be mitigated with a robust insurance programme. Availability of data has always been an issue in crop insurance. The key to insurance relief for farmers is to capture farm-level data through satellites, sensors and other modern tools. We need an insurance product that takes farm-level data, village and district-level data, various analytical tools and algorithms, and comes up with a system of quick reimbursement of the investment made by the farmer up to that crop stage. This ensures the investment is protected.

(c) Price risk. During planting, the farmer has no clue about the price he is likely to get for his crop. He goes by the previous year’s price and current market price which may change dramatically based on the global supply situation. Using predictive analytics if we can develop a price prediction model which gives the farmer, at planting time, an idea of the likely price it will help him take an informed decision on crop choice. In some countries farmers sell half their crop in futures, thereby protecting their investment. Since there are no futures markets in India we need to find a creative solution.

Profit matters

The second problem is lack of operational profits from the crop. Profitability depends on input quantities and their prices and output yield and its price.

Input usage can be brought down by using integrated farming methods in which there is a balance between preventive agronomic methods and some curative chemical methods without sacrificing yields and quality. Firstly, there is a need to reduce tillage and promote better soil structures. Minimum tillage helps prevent soil erosion. Secondly, soil structures, damaged because of indiscriminate use of chemical fertilisers, need to be restored. Biotechnology solutions like nitrogen-use efficiency gene and phosphorus-use efficiency gene reduce consumption of fertilisers significantly. NUE and PUE are in the regulatory system. If we can make them commercially available it can help in reduce fertiliser consumption, reduce cost and promote better soil structures.

Input prices may be reduced by creating a digital marketplace which will eliminate middlemen.

Price discovery for output is a long-pending matter. It is clear that only if we link farmers directly to markets, eliminate middlemen and push farmers up the value chain that better value will be discovered for produce. This is possible now with the use of digital technology.

Timely credit is another critical item. It is physically not possible for bank staff to cover all farmers in time for the agricultural season. The paper work is laborious. A way out is complete digitisation of this process, and quick approval and disbursal of loans through a paperless process. With Aadhaar card-linked bank accounts this should not be difficult. However, the land records have to be digitised so that this process can be done in a seamless manner.

The extension machinery in the country has been lagging behind. We can use ICT in a big way to bridge this gap. Farm-level diagnosis of pests and diseases, advice on nutrition and so on should be available on the mobile phone.

The Government should create a unified, reliable data base of farmers with complete details. It should be accessible by paying a fee. It can help in integrating many services.

Enabling services

Most of these AgTech tools were on display at the recent AP AgTech summit at Vizag. It should be possible to make all the services available on one platform to provide seamless, integrated end-to-end solutions. Berkeley University is piloting an integrated model in Andhra Pradesh. We should watch out for the results.

The Central and State governments need to create an enabling policy environment for technology developers to invest in research and innovation. Their intellectual property and interests have to be protected.

A word of caution, though. Technology is only an enabler. It should empower the farmer and not enslave him. Farming is a production activity. The farmer will have his own reasons for using, or not using technology. Governments have to build capacity among farmers to progressively adopt and absorb modern science and technology tools.

Technology is not a substitute for good agricultural practices (GAP). There is a flurry of entrepreneurship activity in the AgTech space. Scaling up is a major issue. It needs the creation of a network of incubators, mentors, funds and the related ecosystem. There is an urgent need to set up a ₹100-crore fund in each State to invest in Ag Tech startups.

The writer was CEO of Advanta Seeds

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Published on December 14, 2017
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