28 Oct 2020 20:18 IST

Tech in agriculture is opening up new opportunities

The population increase, the paucity of farming lands, and climate change make agri-tech a necessity

For decades, people have left traditional agriculture and migrated to cities in search of a better life. Yet, despite its challenges, agriculture has its own importance and a natural charm.

I know a professor in IIT-Madras — Prof Veezhinathan Kamakoti — a world-renowned computer technologist, who advises the Prime Minister and the National Security Advisor on matters relating to electronic and cyber-security, who is extremely passionate about agriculture. Prof Kamakoti has his own farm in Tamil Nadu, where he grows a variety of organic stuff, including rice. When time permits, Kamakoti escapes his urban reality and can be seen pottering about in the fields.

I know of a ‘software couple’ who ditched their jobs in the US to become full-time agriculturists. A former journalist took early retirement to grow pepper in Kerala, and he confirms that agriculture is back-breaking work. An editor of a business magazine bought farmland to experiment with several new ideas.

One is not sure if these people are making a lot of money — they’re probably not — but their passion demonstrates that there is something in the world’s most primordial profession.

Agriculture goes hi-tech

Now, things are about to get even more interesting. You can be sure that, in a decade or so, agriculture would be among the most-sought after vocations. The reason being agriculture’s becoming increasingly hi-tech, so much so that it needs technically qualified people to be involved now.

So, what’s happening?

Just look at the agri-lingo. Earlier, when you talked of agriculture, you spoke about fertilisers, pesticides, water pumps, and maybe solar panels. Today, you are talking sensors, robots, drones, images, big data, artificial intelligence, in conjunction with a lot of computing in the backend. Sensors, embedded in the soil, tells the computer the moisture content present in the soil, and the computer, in turn, tells you how much to water and when. There comes precision.

If you have a large farm and a small corner of it gets infected with some disease, in traditional agriculture you wouldn’t know until the disease has spread all over. Today, with images generated from dedicated satellites or drones, the computer easily identifies the malaise that has just begun. And if yours is a smart-farm, a robot is already on its way to snip away parts of the sick plant which is infected.

Hyperspectral imaging and 3D laser scanning provide information about plants across thousands of acres and every little area under the observation of the machine can be measured as a mathematical value. Robotic de-weeders are coming in too. One example is ‘Hortibot’ which can recognise 25 different types of weeds and spray pesticides selectively just over the weeds. Also, if you perform agriculture in a polyhouse, you have instruments that can control temperature, light, and humidity, to meet the exact needs of the plant.

Big data analytics and predictive analytics can alert farmers to problems that are likely to rise such as pests, diseases, or even climatic changes.

Hydroponics are in — you can have your farm in a container, with plants growing in vertical layers with no soil and their roots dipping in nutrient-enriched flowing water. You create the right conditions inside the container for that particular plant. A company in Abu Dhabi is growing tomatoes inside a container. Tomatoes in a desert!

This opens up exciting possibilities because it has completely de-coupled agriculture from its environmental conditions paving the way to creating your own desired condition. For example, saffron, a very valuable plant, grows only in cold climates, but now it can be cultivated anywhere.

Add another layer to hydroponics and it becomes aquaponics, a combination of hydroponics and aquaculture. The aquaponic architecture involves a hydroponics set up and a fish pond. The water from the fish pond is rich with fish waste which can be supplied to the plants. The plants’ roots absorb all the wastes and cleanses the water for the fish resulting in a closed-loop, thereby saving water. The GADVAS university in Ludhiana is building an aquaponics plant with technical support from the Centre for Development of Advanced Computation (C-DAV) based in Pune.

Evolution of animal agriculture

All this is plant agriculture. When you come to animal agriculture, which is the fastest-growing segment in India, there is more use of technology. For example, you tag the cows behind the ear and capture every little information about the animal’s behaviour such as the amount of food consumed in a day and the litres of cow milk produced. Hatsun Agro, India’s largest private sector dairy products company, has been able to identify the bulls that have the most productive semen and the company has improved its offspring development.

And, on the other end of the spectrum, India has opened up markets and brought about reforms where technology plays a big role in connecting farmers to markets and customers. With contract farming being freed up, there is scope for companies to occupy more space in the agriculture sector. Agriculture is becoming a hi-tech industry, and in fact, there is no other option.

Importance of tech in agriculture

Two imperatives drive agriculture into the hands of technology. The first is the need to produce more food. In 30 years, the world is going to have to feed two billion more people. According to estimates, there is only a scope of a 4 per cent increase in farmlands to be able to do that. This results in a state where you have to produce more with less land and other inputs. Only technology can deliver that.

The second is the looming spectre of climate change. The traditional way of practising agriculture will only add to the problem. Again, the imperatives of climate change forces mankind to produce more with less.The changes that are taking place in agriculture are not incremental, they are epochal. To end with a cliche — the future has just begun.