Bridging tech and agriculture – The Hindu BusinessLine

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), five of every six farms in the world are less than two hectares, operate around 12 per cent of all agricultural land, and produce roughly 35 per cent of the world’s food. Smallholders’ contributions to food supply varies, at 80 per cent in China and in single digits in Brazil and Nigeria. The situation in India is in line with the FAO assessment. Eighty-six per cent of our farmers cultivate about 47 per cent of the land, producing nearly 50 per cent of the output. Our average landholding size is about one hectare.

Agriculture is the riskiest of all professions as there are many variables. Here are a few ways that can help de-risk agriculture, and benefit small farmers.

Much of the production aspects can be covered by choosing the most appropriate crop and variety (based on agro-climatic suitability, and prices realisable by farmers), conducting soil nutrient analysis, prescribing fertilisation schedules, procuring and supply of genuine seeds, timing crop sowing based on rainfall patterns and market-price trends, and preparing an agronomic package for cultivation, harvest and traceability of produce.

A huge percentage of our produce perishes at the post-harvest stage, and this requires intervention.

As for agriculture credit, it must be made available to all players in the value chain (from seed to market), especially landless and tenant farmers. Computerised platform(s) can connect land records with loaning and insurance operations for crop and livestock sectors. Efficiency of inputs — power, water, fertilisers, pesticides, etc — used by farmers needs to be improved.

Agricultural markets are the final frontier for farmers. The markets need to be made more transparent. The new initiative of farmer producer organisation (FPO) is a powerful tool for aggregation and marketing.

Climate change is likely to affect every stage of farming operations, and niche technological interventions should be identified. Covid-19 has increased the demand for natural and organic produce because of their perceived nutritive/immunity boosting values; besides, the future food basket will also be different.

How can a non-farm specialist or an engineer know these intricacies of agriculture? While the desire to make a difference is necessary to enter the sector, what is vital is strategically coalescing available information, identifying niches where technology can improve farmers’ income and establishing self-sustaining and profitable start-ups. For this crucial connect, functional bridges which link the hi-tech world to conventional agriculture research is
sine qua non .

India transformed itself into a food secure country because of robust public policies and research by the Indian Council for Agriculture Research (ICAR) and State Agriculture Universities (SAUs). The next level to accomplish is efficiency of all resources deployed, improving crop productivity, and region-specific focus, especially in the wake of climate change.

Nurturing new entrepreneurs

For this, new generation entrepreneurs are required. Functional bridges between these two worlds will create and nurture such entrepreneurs. These bridges are in fact talent accelerators. The start-up world is mostly populated by engineers and IT professionals who know technology but not life sciences and agriculture. Reverse is also true for agriculture researchers.

Here are a few ideas to make this happen. First, create bridges and keep them operational. An industry body has to anchor, with participation of all relevant players. Each region in the country must at least have one such bridge. The bridges act as clearing houses and get the communication going.

Second, the curricula of agriculture should undergo an overhaul. Students who study life sciences and agriculture are generally not taught advanced mathematics, which is the basis for computer programming. The curricula must also focus on experiential knowledge and hands-on expertise in life-science technologies.

Third, the ICAR has created Agrinnovate, a company to commercialise its technologies, and SAUs may follow suit. Fourth, action plan to create Agrinnovate-like entities to nurture agri-innovation processes is necessary. Fifth, agri-input companies may be tasked to get into innovation processes, nurturing start-up entrepreneurs. Such technological interventions will also help retain young farmers in agriculture, which is a must for our own food security.

The writer is Deputy Managing Director, NABARD. Views are personal

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