Blockchain, AI, IoT: How India can help farmers by leveraging these technologies

• Growth in India’s agriculture sector has been stunted by low productivity, fragmented landholding, recurrence of over/under production reflecting a clear market asymmetry, lack of good agricultural practices and reforms in farm marketing.
• While the problems are well known, they have remained persistent over the years, necessitating technology interventions to break the status quo.
• The present time offers an excellent opportunity to revive the agriculture sector using emerging technologies (ET) like  artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain and the Internet of Things (IoT).
• Many companies have begun to use ETs in agriculture, directed towards three broad interventions – crop & soil monitoring, predictive agricultural analytics and supply chain management.

Santosh Kumar Sarangi

As the world order gets realigned, it’s an opportunity to revive different sectors using emerging technologies (ET), including artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain and the Internet of Things (IoT). Given the ‘disruptive’ nature of ETs, India must leverage these in agriculture, especially in light of PM Modi’s call for doubling of farmers’ income.

Farm sector growth has been stunted by low productivity, fragmented landholding, recurrence of over/under production reflecting a clear market asymmetry, lack of good agricultural practices and reforms in farm marketing. The problems are well known but have persisted, thus calling for tech intervention to break the status quo.

Tech majors like IBM, Microsoft and Cisco have initiated pilot projects across the agriculture value chain. Microsoft’s project in Andhra Pradesh uses an AI sowing app to recommend farmers on sowing date, land preparation, soil test-based fertilisation, farm yard manure application, seed treatment, optimum sowing depth, etc. This has resulted in 30% increase in average crop yield per hectare. In collaboration with United Phosphorus, Microsoft is building a pest risk prediction app that leverages AI and machine learning.

Many agritech firms are using IBM Watson, IoT, Visual Recognition APIs in commercial drones for image analysis in real time. Remote sensing tech, along with hyper-spectral imaging and 3D laser scanning, is being utilised by start-ups to build crop metrics across thousands of acres.

In another initiative, the Kerala State IT Mission partnered with Cisco to develop the Agri-Digital Infrastructure Platform (uses IoT sensors, non-IoT databases, satellite/UAV images to gather and relay real-time intelligence on soil content, moisture, weather conditions and other parameters) and provide access to e-learning and advisory services to farming and fishing communities in Kannur district.

Many firms have started using ETs in a slow but steady manner in agriculture through three broad interventions:

First, ETs are being used in crop and soil monitoring. Sensors, e-nose, drones and other IoT devices are used to monitor soil, requirement of additional nutrients and disease profiling and recommendation on ameliorative measures.

Second, the use of machine learning and AI for predictive agricultural analytics, i.e. to predict on weather, sowing time, irrigation schedule, etc, is being done by agritech companies like CropIn, Intello Labs, Gramophone, Fasal and others.

Finally, ETs are becoming a pervasive feature in supply chain management. Agritech firms are using data analytics and blockchain to allow smart supply chain management for seed sourcing, warehouse management and market linkages by establishing credentials and authenticity. Initiatives like eNAM could leverage ETs to help remove information asymmetry and establish a wider market for farmers.

As we move forward, some measures that will be essential to scale up use of ETs in agriculture would be:

1. Create an authority that would establish the required framework for widespread use of ETs, create a digital stack for agriculture that allows effective use of ETs among different e-platforms providing services for agriculture; establish and manage a cloud-based data centre for agriculture; address various issues of data security and cybersecurity.

2. Modify curriculum in agri-universities to include components of ETs; focus on skill development of youth and agriculture extension officials to provide services using ET.

3. Improve institutional capacity by promoting innovation and R&D; create a National Agricultural Innovation Fund and possibly similar funds at the state level.

4. Encourage schematic support for ETs by revising guidelines of existing government schemes; overcome land fragmentation constraints by piloting ET-based initiatives with farmer producer organisations; initiate collaborative efforts between public and private sector, etc.

A planned government policy towards adoption of ETs in agriculture can balance the twin demand of ensuring food security (through higher productivity) and higher income for farmers (by cost reduction, qualitative market access). If the roadmap is charted properly, this could supplement efforts towards “doubling of farmers’ income” considerably.

The author is an IAS officer. Views are personal.

(Originally published in the Financial Express)

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