Book House

How novel technology-based solutions can revolutionize the farming sector

Indoor vertical farming (Photo courtesy: farm.one)
  • The book “Reluctant Technophiles” by Rakesh Kumar draws from the discussions of ancient religious text, quantum computing, Greek mythology and current events, and tries to find the sweet spot at the intersection of technology, policy and society.


  • With deep-rooted inequalities, disinformation and corruption running through the veins of the Indian society, it’s hypocritical to pretend that technological solutions can solve all our problems. We are also relatively unprepared for the genuine challenges technology presents.


  • While the benefits of technology are numerous, the challenges have the potential to magnify existent biases, exacerbate social and economic inequality, and break the social fabric. This book sheds light on what technology can solve and what it can’t.


  • Read an excerpt from the book below.


Agriculture in India generates around one-sixth of the national income and directly employs nearly half of the Indian workforce. In addition to generating food for human and animal population, it serves demand for fuel, fiber, and timber. Till early 1960s, India was barely able to feed its population. Famines and similar stresses were common. Droughts in 1965 and 1966 had led to food production decrease by 20 per cent and India had to rely on sparse US food aid to prevent mass starvation. The “ship to mouth” existence started getting ameliorated with the advent of the Green Revolution. New rice and wheat strains were invented under the leadership of MS Swaminathan and large-scale agricultural extension services were launched which doubled the wheat production within three years. India’s grain output now is six times the output in 1950-51 thanks to use of high yielding variety (HYV) seeds, use of fertilizers, and better irrigation facilities.

However, for a country with fast increasing population that needs to be fed (and has much higher expectation than before about the quality of food) and industry whose need for agriculture-based products keeps expanding, the current agricultural productivity would not suffice (India’s rice yield is one third of China and one half of Vietnam and Indonesia). A quantum increase in agricultural productivity is needed. Addressing agricultural productivity can also address poverty in India directly. An estimate suggests that 65 per cent of poor working adults globally are employed in the agricultural sector. So, improving agricultural productivity can directly improve lives of the poor. Another interesting study concludes that investing into agricultural sectors is up to four times effective at alleviating poverty than investing into other economic sectors. Again, this positions agriculture as a key target for poverty alleviation.

Novel technology-based solutions promise to meet the needs of the agricultural sector.

A promising farming technique is indoor vertical farming where produce is grown on shelves mounted vertically in a closed and controlled environment (e.g., hydroponic or aeroponic growth with artificial lights). This reduces the land and labor requirement for farming (since vertical stacking uses the z-dimension, also robots can be employed easily to handle harvesting, planting, and logistics), increases yield (since variables such as light, water, and humidity can be precisely measured and controlled), reduces environmental impact of farming (since distance traveled in the supply chain is cut down, also indoor vertical farms may need up to 70 per cent less water than traditional farming methods), and allows sustainable urban growth (since this allows farming to be done in limited-space urban environments).

Farm automation can make farming more efficient by automating the crop or livestock production cycle using agricultural robots, especially autonomous tractors, robotic harvesters, drones and automatic watering, and seeding robots.

Livestock industry and management has been slow to change. However, genetics and new nutritional and digital technologies have the potential to revolutionize the industry. Sensors can be fitted to dairy herds for health and activity monitoring and generate data-driven insights. Genetic analysis of animals can help livestock producers understand health risks, predict future profitability for a given livestock, and improve decision making regarding animal selection and breeding to optimize profitability and yield.  For example, animal geneticists can identify gene elements that enhance health, growth, and ability to utilize nutrients. The knowledge can then be used to increase production, for example, through selective embryo transfer or through artificial insemination of females with semen from males with the desired genetic characteristics. Robots can be employed both for care of livestock (e.g., automated feeders) as well as their management (e.g., robotic milking machines) to reduce labor costs. Wi-fi, camera, and sensors can be used for remote or automatic climate control and monitoring of animals (e.g., monitoring of an animal in labour).

Plant genetics has been used to enhance crop yields for some time. New plant breeding methods such as marker assisted breeding are being developed that accelerate the process of achieving target characteristics. Genetic engineering holds promise to increase a plant’s resistance to diseases and insects and tolerance to herbicides and other chemicals. Some genetically modified variants may have much higher yield and much lower need for water, nutrients, or pesticides. Some transgenic crops can also have improved flavor or nutritional quality. In India, Bt cotton is the only genetically modified crop allowed for commercial cultivation.

Greenhouses produces vegetables worth nearly US $350 billion every year. Automated control systems and smart lighting technologies can improve the yields further.

Precision farming technologies can allow farmers to control different variables such as micro-climates, soil conditions, moisture levels, and pest stress.  This can improve yields, increase efficiency, and manage costs. GPS tracking systems and satellite-generated imagery can be used to monitor weather patterns, soil levels, and yield. Drones can locate damaged or diseased crops and provide focused attention. 

Blockchain technology can enable fast, low-cost, and reliable food traceability. When a food-borne infection, contamination, or unexpected spoilage comes to light, it is important to be able to trace the source, both for accountability as well to prevent or minimize future such issues. Blockchains use a distributed tamper-resistant ledger to record how food and its constituents flow from farm to table, sometimes in real-time, along with record of ownership and accountability at every stage of the journey. As a result, it is easy to analyze quickly and automatically, both post-facto and well as in transit, the performance and quality of the different components of the food supply chain for safety, fraud, and inefficiency. The confidence in traceability of products and services also creates a market for premium food products. Blockchains can also be used to balance market pricing of agricultural products. Traditional pricing relies on the judgement of the involved parties, largely since the supply chain and the associated costs are opaque. Blockchain allows transparency into the food supply chain by recording verified transactions and costs incurred along the chain as well as by providing a more holistic picture of supply and demand. This enables better pricing. For the same reason, blockchain can disrupt the traditional commodity training and hedging markets. 

Artificial intelligence, in conjunction with sensing technologies, can revolutionize agriculture. Sensors, drones, and satellites can be used to monitor plant health, temperature, humidity, soil condition, etc., and generate data that be analyzed by the farmers and the policy makers to improve decision making.

Technology can also directly help the food industry. For example, robots can be used to replace the more dangerous jobs such as butchery. They can also be used in settings where requirements on volume and price are stringent. 3D printing of food can help food sustainability and innovation. Technologies that enable edible, decomposable, recyclable, and feature-rich packaging can help sustainability. Online platforms that connect food-surplus businesses with food-needy organizations (e.g., after-school programs, local shelters, and non-profits) can reduce food waste.

Excerpted with permission from Reluctant Technophiles: India’s Complicated Relationship with Technology, Rakesh Kumar, SAGE Publications. Read more about the book here and buy it here.

 

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