Transforming Indian Agriculture – Plausible Approach to Food Security
Published on : Thursday 11-06-2020
For transformation in Indian agriculture, it is important to address the issues and create an enabling environment, says Titli Chatterjee.
India as a food-deficient country has come a long way since 1945 when it became one of the founding members of Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) with the farmers being forced to supplement their meagre earnings. India has come a long way and become a global agricultural powerhouse according to World Bank. However, India’s crop failure and low farm yield is a growing concern with FAO highlighting that the share of agricultural sector in India’s economy is progressively declining at a rapid rate of less than 15%. Indian agriculture has various factors like climate change, soil conditions, storage and warehousing that come into play for a high crop failure rate and farmer distress. There is a dire need to improve the agricultural practices and introduce a blend of Agritech and Biotech to address the farmland and crop productivity issues, continuing a sustainable and diversified agricultural sector. In order to alleviate this low crop productivity problem, harnessing Internet of Things, Big Data Analytics and blending it with Biotechnology would be the key to better farming practices. Gradual adoption of technology has powered Indian agriculture time and again by overcoming the aforesaid issues of productivity stagnation, strengthening market linkages and enhancing farm management.
Since India is one of the major contributors to the global food basket, sustaining food security in India holds larger implications. Although fluctuating, the agricultural growth rate over the years reflects the resilience of the sector to the erratic climatic conditions, market volatility, embracing technology and the strategic policy efforts. Though the application of digital technology in agriculture has been instrumental in promoting data generation, weather sensing and warehousing, however a wider adoption in the pre-harvest remains significantly less. Since in majority of the cases the farmers sell maximum portion of their grain immediately after harvest, improvement in technologies that drive down pre-harvest losses could potentially increase farmer incomes. The reasons for the non-adoption in pre-harvest like soil conservation
technologies is largely due to the insufficient economic returns on farmer investments which are often long-term in nature and difficult to perceive. While India needs to emphasise on sustaining the agricultural environment certain areas require immediate attention:
1. Over-pumping of water resulting in falling groundwater levels
2. Water logging which leads to the build-up of salts in soils used for irrigation
3. Climate change especially unprecedented crisis like pandemics or epidemic, and
4. The unbearable cost of technology and policy grants for adoption of advanced
Transforming rural India and the challenges
Few of the digital technologies are becoming the facilitator of socio-economic development in rural India. In pursuit of building an efficient supply chain system through e-choupal is a good example in this context. The E-Agriculture, which is part of Mission Mode Project, enhances access to price information, access to agriculture information and the markets do encourage for further agricultural development. However, doubling farmer’s income has been a distant goal and the technology deployment across the value chain is less beneficial due to time constraints. In addition to this lt 3-acre average agricultural land holding increases per acre cost of production that discourages farm automation. Hence, challenges inherent in Indian agriculture has been persisting and as India anticipates a 1.66 billion people by 2050, there is an urgent need to boost productivity and improve profitability of the agricultural sector. Despite the gains achieved, the long-term impact of the technology adoption in agriculture is time consuming, further efforts to balance the momentum is tedious. A lot of Indian start-ups providing solutions in this space experience common barriers to commercialisation, scaling up of technology and funding. Also, limited access to farmer networks for effective piloting of the project is seen to distort the commercialisation plans of these start-ups.
Sustainable agriculture through Minichromosomal Technology
With the emerging technologies changing the agricultural landscape in the years ahead, perhaps one of the most significant advents in agricultural technology is bundled in a tiny package. A mini chromosome is a small structure within a cell that includes very little genetic material but can, in layman’s terms, hold a lot of information. Using mini chromosomes, agricultural geneticists can add dozens and may be even hundreds of traits to a plant. These traits can be quite complex, such as drought tolerance and nitrogen use. However, the most intriguing part of minichromosomal technology is that a plant’s original chromosomes are not altered in any way. That results in faster regulatory approval and wider acceptance from consumers. Agricultural biotechnology has helped farmers to boost their productivity while allowing much more optimal use of resources. A classic example in this context would be the herbicide tolerant varieties which is commercially available too, have accelerated an ongoing shift to conservation tillage (minimising cultivation) practices that decreases soil erosion, lesser usage of water and reduce machinery use that decreases fuel and greenhouse emissions. On the other hand, the insect resistant varieties have reduced the need for synthetic chemical pesticides with a lower impact on biodiversity. Research indicates that when ploughed organic fields are compared with no-till fields on the same farm and tended by the same farmer, no-till practices uses only one-third as much fossil fuel and use land more efficiently. Thus, by adopting more sustainable management practices, agriculture can also play a great role in soil carbon sequestration.
A significant portion of the food is lost post-harvest through poor transportation systems, poor storage conditions and inadequate warehousing. Notably, a lot of exotic or high-quality agricultural products ripen correctly but get spoiled prior consumption. However, biotechnologists and agriculturists are of the opinion that the minichromosomal technology, which can deliver multiple stacked traits in a single crop, can eventually help to reduce these losses. One of the interesting examples about the first genetically engineered crop product approved for sale was a tomato in which ripening had been modified through the introduction of antisense genes.
For innovation and entrepreneurship to drive the transformation in Indian agriculture, it would be important to address the issues and create an enabling environment to drive the sector. In addition to the above one of the barriers to call-to-action is the resistance towards biotech crops. Despite the economic benefit reaped by producers of commodity crops very few varieties are grown commercially. However, this remains unexplained and the reason is multi-faceted. Indian agriculture must adapt to rapidly changing needs and become more effective at producing more with less resources. The only sure way to ensure food security is to engage in continual efforts of re-structuring policies in terms of technology adoption and research endeavours.
Titli Chatterjee has been leading the ER&D/Industry 4.0 research initiatives of NASSCOM, having experience in research and consulting in the areas of emerging technologies and engineering services. In her current role as Manager – Research Titli is closely working with industry leaders, startups and other stakeholders to highlight how technology can be a game changer on the industrial front, and developing a roadmap in disruptive technologies for Indian IT-BPM industry.