Farm to peel: Embracing digital technology and sustainable farming

Today, technologies like remote sensing, big data, analytics, the Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI) are used by agritech companies to enable farmers by generating actionable insights.

sustainability, sustainable farming, irrigation network, food production, soil health, food security, digital technologies, precision farming, AI, supply chain, waste management, farm wastage, crop residues, agriculture sector
Deteriorating soil health and excessive reliance on groundwater for the food security of its growing population remain a challenge.

– By Sanjaya Mariwala

India is the world’s largest producer of milk and pulses and the second-largest producer of cereals like wheat and rice. The high-yielding varieties of seeds, enhanced fertiliser and pesticide use, expansion of the irrigation network and conducive policy measures taken by the government have helped India attain this phenomenal success in food production. While India is riding high on its agricultural success story, deteriorating soil health and excessive reliance on groundwater for the food security of its growing population remain a challenge. 

With India’s population expected to reach 1.5 billion by 2030, as per the United Nations report on World Population Prospects 2022, the emphasis on food and nutrition security is warranted. This calls for new-age solutions to help overcome issues like climate change, competing for land uses, biodiversity loss, declining soil health and depleting groundwater. As per the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, the current resource-intensive agricultural practices will exert further pressure on our land and water systems, posing a severe threat to food productivity and security going forward. This will have an additional intimidating effect as almost 40% of the country’s workforce depends on agriculture. Thus, transitioning towards sustainable agricultural practices through new-age solutions like precision farming and digital technologies is imperative to achieving India’s developmental and environmental priorities. 

In recent years, Indian agriculture has witnessed an increased use of modern digital technologies to achieve high productivity and ultimately transition towards sustainable farming. Today, technologies like remote sensing, big data, analytics, the Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI) are used by agritech companies to enable farmers by generating actionable insights. Adopting these digital technologies has added value across the entire supply chain ranging from sowing to harvesting until it reaches final consumers. 

Besides, precision farming techniques improve crop yields by minimising the use of resources and help farmers move away from resource-intensive farming techniques. This has not only helped reduce production costs and increase farmers’ incomes but has also enabled the optimal use of valuable resources like groundwater and has aided in waste management. 

India’s evolving digital ecosystem also provides farmers direct access to the market without any middleman involved, thereby increasing their incomes. While digital technology has undoubtedly made some inroads in Indian agriculture, financial constraints, small land holdings and lack of awareness are the prominent barriers to farmers’ widespread adoption of digital technologies in the country.

Besides technology usage, focusing on logistics and warehousing aspects of food distribution is essential to reduce farm wastage. India alone generates about 500 mn tonnes of farm waste and 50 kg of per capita household waste every year. The harvest and post-harvest losses of major agricultural and allied products amount to a yearly loss of Rs 92,651 crore. Apart from economic losses, air, water, and soil pollution consequent to improper management of food waste has an adverse impact on human health and the environment and may also impair India’s food security in the long run. 

Burning crop residues in Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh not only results in air pollution but also deteriorates soil fertility by killing beneficial soil micro-organisms. This ultimately causes farmers to use more chemical fertilisers, increasing production costs and polluting water bodies through irrigation runoff. In this scenario, efforts should be made to safely dispose of farm and food waste in the natural environment through biodegradation methods like bio-decomposer. The impact verification study by the Indian Institute of Management Rohtak found that the bio-decomposer approach has helped avoid stubble burning in 92% of the serviced areas in Punjab and Haryana states, reducing fertiliser usage by 20-25%. Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) has introduced 140 technologies to help farmers utilise farm waste to make various biodegradable products. The Union Budget 2023-24 announcement of 500 new ‘waste to wealth’ plants under the GOBAR-Dhan scheme will further help promote a circular economy. The scheme will help in village cleanliness while generating energy and organic manure from cattle and organic waste. 

While new-age technologies have taken off in India, it is still limited to farmers with large and medium land holdings. Thus, there is an urgent need to democratise the use of technology in the Indian agriculture sector. Besides, attention should be paid to minimising farm and food waste through circularity principles. Farm waste can be safely disposed of into the environment through the right policy intervention, increased awareness amongst farmers and participation of private companies in farm waste management. For these, what is needed is more encouragement of innovative practices and their dissemination by recognising them through the initiatives of ‘start-up India, Innovate -India etc. This will not only help tackle the economic and environmental issues related to farm and food waste but will also go a long way in addressing food security in the future. 

(Sanjaya Mariwala is the executive chairman and managing director of OmniActive Health Technologies Ltd., India and founder president of Association of Herbal and Nutraceutical Manufacturers of India.)

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First published on: 02-04-2023 at 11:00 IST