Precision Agriculture – A long way to go for India
Sep. 2, 2016
Several thoughts were then woven around this concept of Precision agriculture and then emerged this interesting topic of “Agriculture 4.0” – which is today creating a lot of buzz in the agriculture industry across the world. Taking a leaf straight out of the term ‘web 2.0’, Agriculture 4.0 refers to the latest development in the chronicles of progress in the field of agriculture. Modern agriculture smartly dove-tailed with data science lies as a backbone of Agriculture 4.0.
As per the 2015 Report of Agropages, Precision Agriculture is: - Using data science to precisely regulate and optimize the agricultural investment and management measures in accordance with specific condition of each unit of farmland so as to maximize output and economic benefit while reducing use of resources to protect agricultural ecology.
This otherwise mystifying concept of Precision Agriculture is explained with an easy-to-comprehend flow chart.
In plain terms, Precision Agriculture aims to collect and use / analyze the available agricultural data and finally percolate the analyzed information back to the farmers / growers to help them ascertain the precise soil conditions and more importantly precise amounts of agriculture inputs required in order to optimize the farm yields with minimum input costs.
Industry giants like Monsanto, Dupont and BASF have already taken a plunge in this promising concept and are spending millions of dollars to take this forward. Industry estimates suggest a growth rate of >12% YoY for global Precision Agriculture market, which translates to a decent $ 4.5 Billion USD by 2020.
Being through with this alluring concept, let’s try to fit this model in the Indian Agricultural context. A basic background of some key agricultural trends will help us with the analysis that follows. So here are some quick and relevant knowledge nuggets:
• India is the 2nd larger producer of agriculture products and accounts for 7.68 percent of the total global agricultural output
• Agriculture contributes approximately 17% to the GDP of the Indian economy
• At 190 million hectares, India holds second largest agricultural land in the world
• Around 800 million of rural population depends on agriculture as their primary source of income and livelihood
(Data compiled from various sources over internet)
• Average yield per hectare of land is extremely low (Yield rate 2.4 Tonnes per hectare in rice placing India in 27th place out of 47) Source: Firstpost report
• Declining land holding size and Fragmented land holding (Reduced from 2.16 Hectares in 1970s to 1.16 Hectare in 2010) Source: Firstpost report
• Reducing arable land due to industrialization
• Indian farmers are primarily dependent on rain. However, due to lack of infrastructure in addition to unpredictable monsoons, they are not being able to harvest and use the rain water optimally
• Crop diversification, even in areas having adverse agro climatic conditions, has increased rampantly as farmers try to increase their marginal incomes without being updated properly
• No / Limited access to rural credit
• Inefficient distribution network
Referring to the flow chart once again, I will now try putting things into perspective. Precision Agriculture tends to address one or many of the concerns listed above. Let’s have a look at some:
- Enables farmers to sow right crops at the right location in order to get optimized yield in the limited patch of land available to him
- Delivers precise information on the use of agri inputs leads to a reduction in agri inputs wastage and hence resulting in considerable savings and lesser reliance on rural credit
- Information obtained from Predictive analytics can help farmers to plan in advance, leading to a reduction in last minute shocks regarding weather, rainfall, crop prices etc. This in turn reduces the occurrences of unnecessary crop diversification undertaken to enhance incomes in short term.
- Accurate information coupled with sharing of innovative practices will make the farmers less dependent on rains or will educate them on water harvesting techniques in case they still rely on rains
There would definitely be several other direct / indirect benefits arising out of Precision Agriculture. For the scope of this discussion however, I limit myself to the key benefits mentioned above.
Indian agriculture industry is quite strong on data acquisition. Precise data accurate up to the remotest village is available on categories like climate, rainfall, land, soil condition etc. Agriculture being a regulated industry to a certain extent, especially the fertilizers segment, even the usage data is readily available and published on Government websites regularly. Agrochemicals, seeds, other agri-inputs on the other hand, are not entirely regulated and hence this invites a lot of ambiguity on the sales and usage statistics. Sensing the high price elasticity and uninformed end user base, home grown local companies selling seeds and pesticides have sprung up like mushrooms over the last decade. Some of these companies have even resorted to selling spurious wares to garner quick bucks. The data on the exact number of such localized companies is yet to come out, leave alone the sales figures from them.
Data Decoding and Optimizing inputs:
There is no dearth of statistical / mathematical talent in the Indian markets. Because of this, gathering resources for data decoding and analysis can be seen as a cakewalk for Indian agriculture, when it gears up for the Precision Agriculture reforms.
The main challenge lies in dissemination of information back to the farmers.
- Precision agriculture relies on internet, smartphones and apps when it comes to downloading the information to end users.
- The internet penetration in India currently stands at a mere 30% (350 Million users) compared to a country like China having 50% penetration and USA, which tops the charts with approximately 85% penetration. When you further break up the Indian figures into rural and urban usage, the rural figures skew precariously towards the lower end.
- When we talk about accessing internet on mobile smartphones, these 30% numbers suffer an additional blow of almost 50% reducing the user base even further.
- Disparity in the usage of languages creates a barrier in the communication. In India, the use of languages extensively varies from one state to another. Wikipedia suggests a shocking number of 750 languages spoken in India currently. Due to this, implementing mass communication activities in countries like USA for example, where 80% people speak a single language -English or let’s say China, where 70% of the population speak Mandarin, becomes a whole lot easier compared to that in India.
Because of such issues, end-to-end reach faces a tough challenge and resultantly, each of the earlier three activities of the Precision Agriculture flowchart become futile in a sense.
On a positive note, crucial issues like internet penetration and smartphone usage are being tamed at an amazing rate, thanks to the increasing interests of the handset manufacturers and mobile service providers in the untapped potential of the rural markets. Even the data input methods are improving rapidly with the advent of several market research and consulting organizations in the field of agriculture, which try to provide data with a near perfect accuracy. Efforts to overcome language barriers like encouraging collective farming to reduce land fragmentation among several others, however, remain yet to be seen.
So, while the conceptual framework, intentions and the scope revolving around Precision Agriculture are thought provoking at the first glance, its successful implementation poses a major challenge in the current India. Unless the smallest of the roadblocks are identified and removed, reaping the benefits out of adopting Precision Agriculture techniques will remain a Holy Grail for Indian Agriculture.
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