THE New Delhi Declaration of the G20 summit has appropriately “committed to promoting responsible, sustainable and inclusive use of digital technology by farmers and an ecosystem of agri-tech startups and MSMEs”. Agri technology is most relevant in view of estimates that the food production needs to increase by 59-98% by 2050 to meet the ever-growing needs of a burgeoning population — a tall order considering the shrinking cultivable land and depleting natural resources.
Small and marginal farmers, who often lack access to advanced technologies and expertise, are likely to benefit from the emergence of generative AI technology such as chatGPT and Microsoft Bing, which by leveraging large datasets can generate AI models that produce highly realistic output that is often indistinguishable from human-created content. It is, however, of paramount importance to understand that such a technology-driven transformation can only be possible by creating awareness and capacity-building of the majority of these farmers.
Present-day agriculture is infrastructure-deficient and largely monsoon-dependent for irrigation. It lacks modern tools amid poor purchasing capacity of small and marginal farmers, besides low profitability, low market connectivity as well as lack of friendly and sufficient credit availability. Investment starvation is evident as the gross capital formation in agriculture as a percentage of the total gross capital formation in the economy fell from 8.5% (2011-12) to 6.5% (2015-19). Inadequate use of best farming techniques and technologies, degrading soil health due to overfertilisation and excessive pesticide use are among the common causes for 30-50% lower farm yields of various commodities than that of some agriculturally advanced countries.
It is envisioned to achieve the target by 2050 by accelerating the rise in production and bridging the productivity gap by being an active partner of the digital public infrastructure system to eliminate the existing digital divide and boost the agriculture digital economy of the country. It has been widely accepted that the modernisation of Indian agriculture is essential because it is the primary source of livelihood for almost three-fifths of the total population but with only about 17.8% contribution to the county’s gross value added, having an annual growth rate of about 4%. Hence, the fourth wave of revolution in this sector is being initiated by the introduction of new and advanced technologies to spur precision in farming methods.
Recent technological advancements and their possible application have shifted the focus from general to site-specific management practices for more accelerated support and solutions that do away with the uniform use of water, fertilisers and pesticides across the fields; instead, minimum quantities sufficient for the targeted sites are applied. Agricultural operations can increasingly be supported by sophisticated technologies such as the geographical information system (GIS), global positioning system (GPS), agricultural robotics, the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), data collection storage and analysis, sensors, drones, satellite remote sensing technology, connectivity technologies such as mobile devices, satellite technologies and Internet-based platforms. Computer-oriented operations increase the level of farm automation and blockchain technologies ensure regulation of the quality of food, its shelf life and transparency in the agri supply chain. Controlled environment agriculture, regenerative agriculture — a way to decarbonise the food system and make farming resilient to climate shocks — and agricultural biotechnology, too, are significant, even as Indian agriculture will require the application of technologies more conducive to improving crop productivity, supporting smallholder farmers and reducing the adverse environmental impact.
Setting up of the Digital Agricultural Mission (DAM, 2012-2025) by the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare is a welcome step to promote these new technologies. The ambitious framework of the Indian Digital Ecosystem of Agriculture (IDEA) of the ministry is aimed at creating an ecosystem that would initiate the structuring of several other agro-technological missions as well. Farmers are likely to benefit from seamless credit and insurance services and essential knowledge related to seeds, fertilisers, pesticides, market information and price forecast through federated big data and analytics to be created as per major objectives of the project. Various technology-based interventions under AgriStack and core infrastructure, data applications and tools that enable interoperatability of public and private IT systems under the Unified Farmers Service Platform are expected to expand deeper collaboration between all sectors of the Indian agricultural ecosystem. The DAM encompasses cloud computing, earth observation remote sensing, data science, AI and machine learning (ML) models, which have helped in the emergence of over 1,000 agri startups, as per the Economic Survey, 2022-23.
Several agri startups promote the use of drones for solving crop-related problems. These remote-controlled UAVs have been found advantageous in evidence-based planning and geographical data collection. Their field-level use is still in its infancy, but wherever used, these have been found useful in monitoring a broad range of agricultural parameters such as environmental conditions, soil nutrients and plant growth status, irrigation and water management, application of pesticides and fertilisers, weed management, etc. Drones were successfully used in 2020 in Rajasthan for controlling a locust attack by quickly spraying organo-phosphate insecticides over a vast area. However, there is a need to introduce certain policy interventions, remove inherent limitations, develop standard operating procedures and make agriculturists familiar with the entire process.
Small and marginal farmers, who often lack access to advanced technologies and expertise, are likely to benefit from the emergence of generative AI technology such as chatGPT and Microsoft Bing, which by leveraging large datasets can generate AI models that can produce highly realistic output that is often indistinguishable from human-created content. It is, however, of paramount importance to understand that such a technology-driven transformation can only be possible by creating awareness and capacity-building of the majority of uneducated or semi-educated small and marginal farmers. Lack of appropriate equipment and the cost of ownership are big hurdles. Hence, popularisation of digital agriculture lies in subsidising the cost of technology by the government, farm-level technological integration and collaboration with the farmers.
The author is former VC, Maharana Pratap University of Agriculture & Technology, Udaipur
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