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Essay: Can Precision Agriculture, Data Analytics and IoT Bring the Next Green Revolution in India?

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Is Precision Agriculture, with big data, satellite imaging and IoT, set to bring the next wave of green revolution in India? 

The year 1965 green revolution in India led to increase the farmer’s income, yield of major crops and made India self-reliant in food production. Today in the 21st century, precision agriculture based on information technology, aims to enable the producer to collect information and data for better decision making thereby, reducing the risk and uncertainties which are commonly associated with agriculture. From understanding the temperament of the soil, to using data-driven  weather stations to predict climate patterns and calculate loss adjustment, risk assessment, and crop insurance data for farm management— Precision Agriculture is making the practice of farming more accurate and controlled.

Kalu Dharmendar, a farmer and a milkman, grows wheat, sugarcane, and opium- occasionally- on his farmland located in Khurja, a city in the Bulandshahr district in Uttar Pradesh. Until two years ago, he faced multiple instances of crop failures since both wheat and sugarcane were water intensive crops and his farm’s uneven land surface led to a lot of water wastage. "Due to unlevelled land, the farming area of the farmland decreases, since we cannot farm on uneven lands,” he adds.

In 2016 Kalu’s neighbour and fellow farmer introduced him to his land leveller, and methods of Precision agriculture, the application of precise and correct amounts of inputs like water, fertilisers, pesticides etc. at the correct time to the crop for increasing its productivity and maximising its yields thus, resulting in profit. While the cost of purchasing a laser land leveller proved to be expensive for Kalu, who earned an average of Rs 4-5 lakh per annum on a good year as oppose to Rs 1-2 lakhs when there was a crop failure, he invested in the machine which costs approximately Rs 25,000 per unit.  “The money invested returns in a year’s time as the yield improves manifold,” he adds.

Today with the introduction of robotics, data analytics, and Internet of Things (IoT) in farmlands, the advancement in Precision Agriculture technology has resulted in greater yields with less inputs. Multiple startups including SatSure, CropIn, Timble, EM3 and Oxen farmlands have invested in farm technologies and management solutions and are aiding farmers across India. However despite the many benefits, it has proven difficult to determine the cost benefits of Precision Agriculture management.

Precision Agriculture in India

That India is predominantly an agrarian economy is well-known, with the sector contributing 17 percent to the country’s GDP. Sixty percent of the rural households depend on agriculture and its associated industries. India has the second-largest arable land globally— only second to the United States of America— with its 160 million hectares.

Yet, this sector is bleeding. Today, around 70 percent of the agricultural households, mostly comprising of small farmers with less than one hectare of land holding, struggle to make ends meet and depend on loans for their farming activities. Further, only 45 percent of the net sown area has access to irrigation facilities, leading to challenges in the production phase itself.

Advocating for Precision Agriculture as a means to mitigate the challenges, Rajan Aiyer, the Managing Director of Trimble, for India and SAARC region, tells YourStory, “India is an agrarian economy with agriculture being the livelihood source for a majority of Indians; and yet it has not grown to keep pace with a growing population. Moreover, water shortage and irrigation have become a universal issue with Indian agriculture. In such times, the use of Precision Technology like the Laser Land Leveller can prove to be a boon to the farmer, and can help him optimise the available resources.”

Precision agriculture requires special tools and resources to recognise the inherent spatial variability associated with soil characteristics, crop growth and to prescribe the most appropriate management strategy on a site specific basis. The environmental benefits of precision farming include reduced use of water, fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides besides the farm equipments.

“Instead of managing an entire field based upon some hypothetical average condition, which may not exist anywhere in the field, a precision farming approach recognises site-specific differences within fields and adjusts management actions accordingly. Precision Agriculture offers the potential to automate and simplify the collection and analysis of information. It allows management decisions to be made and quickly implemented on small areas within larger fields,” explains Rahul Tripathi, from Central Rice Research Institute.

In Precision agriculture, the field is broken into “management zones” also called ‘grids’ based on soil pH, nutritional status, pest infestation, yield rates, and other factors that affect crop production. Management decisions are based on the requirements of each zone and precision agriculture tools such as land leveller are used to control zone inputs. The exact location can be identified with the help of one of the main precision farming technology of Global Positioning System (GPS), while application on the exact location can be made with the help of advanced equipments available.

Ease of access and impact

According to a recent study by Markets and Markets, the USA accounts for the largest market (54.3 percent) in 2015, followed by Europe (25.25 percent). Precision farming market in the Asia-Pacific region is still in the earlier stages of adoption life cycle and is expected to grow with double digit rate between 2016 and 2022. Presently India, Australia, China and Japan, have the highest growth rate and highest share in precision farming market.

“To feed the 9.7 billion people in the world in 2050, agriculture efficiency must increase  by 35% – 70% and technology is the key. India’s rich mix of farming practices and small landholdings provide a massive data set to inform our models,” says Krishna Kumar, the founder and CEO of CropIn Technologies.

To collect and utilise information efficiently, precision agriculture employs the usage of modern technological tools. At the soil level, the impedance rate of the soil, moisture, water retention, NPK values and nutrient migration is measured; at the crop level, measurement of chlorophyll, susceptibility, plant level temperature and humidity is noted. And at above soil level, the weather conditions such as ambient temperature, humidity, dew point rainfall is measured. These data are recorded from the field and with the help of Big Data and Analytics, one can predict, prescribe and warn the farmer of the inputs, diseases and weather conditions that will help them to take accurate mitigation or remediation; right when it is needed.

“Technology has already reached remote parts of India. People in rural areas may be unpadh (illiterate), but they are not anari (dumb). They are very smart and they know what they want. If they see value in technology, they will adopt it,” said Ritu Verma, Co-founder of Ankur Capital tells YourStory.

In fact, in 2008, to understand the impact of precision farming on resource-poor regions and underprivileged farmers, Department of Agricultural Economics, Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, conducted a study in the Dharmapuri district in Tamil Nadu. The study which looked into productivity, income, employment, and adoption behaviour of technology in agriculture, revealed that the adoption of precision farming has led to 80 percent increase in yield in tomato and 34 percent in eggplant production. Increase in gross margin was found to be 165 and 67 per cent, respectively.

“Lack of finance and credit facilities have been the major constrains in non-adoption of precision farming. Providing subsidies for water-soluble fertilisers and pump-sets will increase adoption of precision farming,” K.R. Ashok, one of the author of the study says.

While there is a lack of data on the overall estimation of the number of farmers who are using precision agriculture methodologies on their farmland, Trimble has sold over 10,000 Trimble laser levellers in that past one year across Punjab, Haryana, Western UP, Chennai and Rajasthan. CropIn Technologies claims that they have digitised over 3.1 million acres of farmland, impacting the lives of nearly 2.1 million farmers while managing 265 crops and 3,500 crop varieties on its platform. SatSure, the Bengaluru based startup who uses satellite imagery, sensor technology (IoT and weather data), cloud computing and big data infrastructure, and machine learning to address the macro challenges in the agriculture sector, is presently working with the Andhra Pradesh government to bring technology access to all the farmers in the state.   

Challenges and way forward

Despite its many benefits, the high cost involved in precision agriculture remains the primary deterrent for farmers. Lack of awareness and absence of “dedicated education” of precision agriculture among the farming sector are the other problems faced by this model.  Further policy makers should promote Precision farming at farm level and provide technical backup support to the farmers to develop pilots or models, which can be replicated on a large scale.

“Precision farming is still only a concept in many developing countries and strategic support from the public and private sectors is essential to promote its rapid adoption. Precision agriculture can address both economic and environmental issues that surround production agriculture today. Questions remain about cost-effectiveness and the most effective ways to use the technological tools we now have,” says Abhilash Joseph, from Precision Farming Development Centre (PFDC) at Kerala Agricultural University.

Precision Agriculture can help address inefficiencies across the agricultural supply chain, such as low productivity, lack of farm mechanisation, access to markets and data asymmetry. It encourages product innovations such as multipurpose agricultural equipment and tools for real-time data capturing and analysis.

“We firmly believe that technology is an enabler of change. We have seen the difference internet and mobile technology has brought about in our society. Satellite technology and its applications are the next level for a transforming India to continue and position India as the ‘knowledge-driven economy’,” Abhishek Raju, the cofounder of SatSure says.

In sum, precision agriculture hopes to push much-needed process and product innovations in Indian agriculture, including equipment, tools for real-time data capturing and analysis, aggregation of farmland and farm produce, and financial technology for farmers.

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