We might have read of the were savage droughts in the mid-sixties, when Indian agriculture and agricultural reserves could not keep up with our burgeoning population, leading millions to starvation. Some of us would perhaps recall the great humiliation which Indians were subjected to at that time. The then US President Lyndon Johnson offered to send shiploads of cheap rupee-denominated wheat under the Public Law 480 scheme, but then held them back on the shores of India, because Indira Gandhi criticised his Vietnam excesses. As people starved and scrambled around for wheat, and literally lived ‘ship-to-mouth’, Lal Bahadur Shastri called on the nation to fast one day a week. The question in everyone’s mind was that with the world’s second largest farming area (more than the US and Brazil, only lesser than China), how could India bring itself to such a situation? The answer was that we were producing too less food grain; only 12mn tonnes of when the potential was many times more.
Out of this humiliation and crisis was born the First Green Revolution, helmed by visionary scientists like Dr. Norman Borlaug and MS Swaminathan. They promoted increased farming land, developed and used grains hardened against pests, used fertilizers and pesticides, double cropping per year, farmer credit and better irrigation techniques. The results were astounding: foodgrain (primarily wheat) production increased from 12mn tonnes to 17mn in 1967, and then shot up to 100mn tonnes in 1971. A country was saved; a war was won. The uptick continues – this year, despite a poor monsoon, India harvested 252 mn tonnes of food grain.
While this sounds promising, there are dark clouds over Indian agriculture again. Over the years, our GDP has grown by 7.5% annually, but agricultural growth has severely lagged behind at 3%. In another 30 years’ time, India will have 1.5 bn people, with growing incomes, and the demand for foodgrain is expected to almost double to 450 mn tonnes. So, we will need to produce almost twice as much from the existing agricultural land. And, that land itself is under threat – from urbanisation, real estate development and industrialisation; therefore, the expected yield needs to drastically increase.
Our farmers are dying; 8000 of them committed suicide last year, that is 22 farmers every single day! And these are the official, recorded figures; the reality is much worse. The situation is not expected to improve this year; in the first four months of 2016, 100 farmers committed suicide every month in Marathwada alone! The reasons behind these gruesome statistics are simple: our farmers do not earn enough to feed themselves and repay their debts. A farmer usually eats half his harvest; the other half is usually sold to a private trader at lower prices than a mandi. Input costs are 30% of total output, with fertiliser and labour being the most expensive. Calculations show that the average farmer HH in India makes Rs. 6,426 a month, and needs to have at least 1 hectare of land to make ends meet. However, 65% of farmers have less than one hectare, and so must take debt to make ends meet. More than 50% of farmers are indebted, and the average outstanding loan of a farmer is Rs. 47,000, usually at a usurious interest rate. At an average earning of Rs. 6400, and a marginal farmer earning of Rs. 4000, which does not cover his monthly expenses also, the interest is a very heavy, if not fatal, burden.
The situation, unfortunately, is getting grimmer, and the current farming practices are not going to solve it. Our rivers are dying, making traditional irrigation more and more difficult. Our soil has been despoiled with heavy fertilizer use; over use of pesticides have made vast areas of Punjab and Bengal cancer-belts. The climate is changing around us, making rain and other climatic conditions unpredictable. The seasons are shifting their rhythms, as we continue to damage the planet.
The average yield in India is 2.3 tonnes per hectare, China is much above us at 5.1 tonnes per hectare. To feed our population, we need to double agricultural yields, store and transport it better, and enable it with the right insurance and credit. To make this next quantum jump happen, what we need is the Second Green Revolution – one not based on land, chemicals, or water but on Data, Digital technologies and Drones. Agriculture Technology, or AgTech, will fuel the digital transformation of this most ancient of all industries.
I believe that the Second Green Revolution will be based on five transformative digital agri-technologies:
1. Technology Enabled Advisory
Information is power; for the farmer, it is gold, and can mean the difference between a bountiful harvest and a disastrous crop. When to harvest, where to sell the produce at, how much to sell it for, what to sow next, which are the inputs (seeds, fertilizers, etc.) needed, where to get them at the best price, when is it likely to rain, when will the water come? The answers traditionally have come from a farmer’s experience, or the neighbouring farmer, and some times and extension worker provided by the Government, or a private service like Mahindra Shubhlabh. However, the new advisor for the farmer will be his mobile phone. Imagine a tech-enabled advisory app on the phone, with image-recognition, speech-enablement, vernacular languages, and powered by artificial intelligence and machine learning technology, and cloud databases. Think of a use case where the farmer sees a diseases leaf, clicks its picture and sends to a cloud, where the image is analysed and the details of the leaf disease sent back to the farmer, with suggested remedies, places to procure these services, and possible government subsidies available for the same. An advisory service which can answer a farmer’s questions on the go will be the single most powerful tool to drive up yields and productivity
2. Precision Farming
This is a data driven approach to raise farm yields by using GIS data, soil information, weather and environmental conditions for a specific small piece of land, by optimising the choice of crop, and the use of pesticides, water and fertilizers, and to decide when and how to spray, till, and harvest. The precise nature of this technology is especially useful for India’s very small farm holdings; 65% of land holdings are less than 2 hectares, the average in the US is 180 hectares! It is estimated that precision farming has been responsible for more than 80% of total increase in wheat, rice and maize increase over the last 50 years! In fact, a large pilot in India, the Tamil Nadu Precision Farming Project raised crop yields by 60 to 80 percent for 23 different kinds of crops. Precision farming works with the use of GPS and GIS data, cheap IoT sensors in the soil which track moisture, Nitrogen levels, etc. and feeds the data back to an analytics engine in the cloud, which then recommends the right timing and techniques of inputs.
3. Real Time Market Information
The Indian farmer sells most of his produce to a middleman for price lower than he can get, because he does not have the right, current market information. He cannot make the right information on what to plant, since he does not know the patterns and forecasting of price. Mobile phones and cheap data plans can change all that. The e-Choupal network of ITC has created 6000+ echoupals and networked 40 lakh farmers, who exchange information with each other. A query-able content repository in the cloud, can make real time market information and analytics available to the individual farmer.
4. Tech-enabled Supply Chain
The farm supply chain in India is broken; we can store only 10% of the fresh produce we grow, 30% of it rots. Building more warehouses and cold chains will certainly help, however technologies like IoT, bar coding, and blockchain can help monitor the produce from farm to market and cut down the extent of spoilage and loss
5. Tech-enabled Insurance
While crop insurance exists, an overwhelming majority of crops are not insured, leaving the farmer severely indebted when his crop fails. Technology and information, from sources like IBM’s Weather Company and Skymet, can be used to predict weather patterns and therefore derive more precise premiums and insurance covers for small farmers. Smart contracts on blockchain based technologies can be used for automatic pay-outs, discouraging on-ground field assessment.
There are a bunch of startups and large companies operating in the ag-tech area. Before Monsanto bought a agtech company called Climate Corporation for close to $1bn, no one paid much attention to this part of the digital wave. Climate Corporation, set up by two ex-Googlers, is a digital agriculture company that examines weather, soil and field data to help farmers determine potential yield-limiting factors in their farms, and then suggests ways to ameliorate them. In India, too, scores of agtech startups are coming up. Agrostar and Bighaat enable ecommerce and doorstep delivery of seeds, chemicals and accessories; Ninjacart, Farmeruncle and Merakisan enable ecommerce of produce for a direct farmer-to-doorstep delivery. Cropin and Airwood are making the ‘ERP and CRM of Agriculture’; Stellapps makes dairy management tools integrated with IoT, cloud, mobility and analytics; Flybird is in precision farming while Trringo, from the Mahindra Group, is building an ‘Uber for tractors and farm machinery’. Agtech specific funds and accelerators like Omnivore Partners, Villgro and Village Capital are coming up, reflecting the bullishness in the sector. The government has gotten into the act too, with the Prime Minister launching eNAM, which has set a target of linking 200 wholesale markets or mandis by September to achieve the ambitious goal of doubling farmers’ income by 2022.
For these tech companies, data is the new soil – to be mined and analysed. There is a new mathematics of farming – what was measured in acres is now measured in square foot, enabling more micro farming and precision agriculture. Agriculture is being platformised, with platform models being applied to create market places and on-demand models for machinery, inputs and produce.
As the digital revolution rolls across India, agriculture is its last, and most important, frontier. Today, we are seeing perhaps the dawn of the second green revolution. While there is a long way to go, the true success of Digital India will be if it helps 70% of our population – agricultural workers and farmers. The archetypal impression of the Indian farmer has been a wizened, gnarled man sitting in his parched field, shading his eyes from the merciless sun and gazing at the clouds, willing them to rain. Perhaps, soon, that will change to him expectantly looking at the data cloud through his mobile phone, waiting for it to spew out the information and knowledge, to add to his wisdom.
That is when we will know that the Second Green Revolution has arrived.
(This article appeared in Mint dated Jan 23, in an abbreviated form: Link )
Jaspreet Bindra is the SVP- Digital Transformation at Mahindra, and tweets at @jbindra. The above views are personal.
Special thanks to Strategy and Digital team at Mahindra, and McKinsey Global Institute for some of the data.