Seeds of change

Farming will go back to basics with the help of tomorrow’s technology.

“The future of farming has been known to Indians for thousands of years,” says Subhash Palekar. Half in jest, I ask the farmer who won the Padma Shri in 2016 if he is a fortune teller. With a laugh, he comes up with a profound reply: “What we do today determines our future.” Palekar is a proponent of a farming method he calls “Zero Budget Spiritual Farming”, which rejects chemicals and pesticides, and goes back to a more ancient form of agriculture. The method helps farmers bump up yields by adding a solution of cow excreta, jaggery, and gram flour to enrich the soil, and mulch from harvesting to add moisture. Apart from generating record yields from his farm in Maharashtra’s drought-prone Vidarbha region, Palekar’s method has also helped nearly 4 million farmers stave off poverty.

Cut to the laboratory of the ABC Robotics Initiative at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Researchers here are taking cutting-edge technology to a new level for farming by developing robots for targeted spraying of pesticides and selective harvesting. Professor Yael Edan of ABC Robotics says the lab also plans to design drones that will enable pollination of plants in greenhouses. “In the future, such tasks will get automated, and technology is more capable [of performing them] than humans,” says Edan.

These, say scientists, are the two poles of the future of farming. The best of age-old farming methods will go hand in hand with the latest technology to meet the challenge of feeding the world’s population, which is expected to touch 9.7 billion by 2050, according to United Nations estimates. We may still be a long way from a world of artificial meat burgers, but farming in the future will be revolutionised by specialist technology aimed at maximising yields in the face of increasing soil degradation and limited availability of land. 

From smart farming, or precision agriculture based on data analysis, to vertical farming in a controlled environment without soil and sunlight, the farms of the future will be controlled more by computers than ever before—and they will be more productive and profitable, too.  For ages, farming has been dependent on clouds that bring rain. Its future will also hinge on the cloud, but of a different kind: Gigabytes of data picked up by sensors in farms will be processed via cloud computing to grow produce with optimal use of water and nutrients. “The demand for food grown without chemical fertilizers is growing exponentially. Only technological intervention can fulfill this demand. While it sounds ironical and contradictory, the future of agriculture is in technology-enabled organic food,” says Suchita Bhandari, CEO of Delhi-based Avantha Agri Tech.

India is no stranger to agricultural innovation. Around 50 years ago, it used hybrid wheat seeds and scientific farming methods to dramatically increase yields and become self-sufficient in food grains in what is known as the Green Revolution. Today, with productivity down to dismal levels, India desperately needs a second Green Revolution to drag millions of its farmers out of poverty. Bhandari says India needs farm innovation because of widespread soil, water, and air pollution—all of which affect productivity and quality. Around 12% of the world’s land is under agricultural use and 20% of farmland is degraded. According to a 2015 report by 11 scientists, major food growing states have a high level of soil degradation.

In short, the country’s agriculture needs a new impetus: A smart revolution.

The advancement in the world of technology means at least some of the ideas are closer to implementation than just concepts. For instance, sensors to monitor the health of seeds or the conditions of the soil have gone beyond the prototype stage. When implemented, they could keep farmers abreast of crucial events, such as the moisture content of soil, or alert them in case of a pest attack. The use of data analytics, sensors, and connected devices—called the Internet of Things—can help eliminate many traditional farming risks, says a 2015 report on smart farming by British technology and Internet analysis firm Beecham Research.

Over the next decade or so, as technology evolves and more products hit the market, costs will fall, encouraging large-scale adoption. So far, the signs have been positive. According to the AgTech Investing Report 2015 by farming startup marketplace AgFunder, venture capitalists invested $4.6 billion (Rs 29,058 crore at current rates) in 2015 in agriculture technology companies globally. That is double the 2014 level ($2.3 billion), and over 10 times the amount invested in 2012.

One U.S. startup, Arable, has developed a device that has solar-powered sensors gathering data on as many as 40 parameters such as soil moisture and crop stress. Another startup, California-based FarmBot, has developed a robot that is basically a farmer. It can be installed in a small garden or greenhouse to do everything from sowing the seeds, watering  to the right level, weeding, and monitoring the crop till it is ready for harvest. Founder Rory Aronson says  “anyone can be a farmer” by using the robot. The FarmBot kit is priced at $2,900, and has received pre-orders worth $100,000. “The process cuts carbon emissions by 25%... [and] the veggies cost less than those at the regular grocery store,” says Aronson.

Smart gadgets are also being adopted for livestock farming. Smartbell, a Cambridge-based startup, has come up with a device that when hung around the neck of a cow tracks its movement, monitors its health, and updates the farmer. In pisciculture, experiments are under way to replicate the composition of seawater to enable onshore farming of saltwater fish.

Besides these hi-tech gadgets, there are ideas that challenge the very essence of farming. Vertical farming, for instance, involves cultivation in a controlled environment using containers stacked in layers in the form of a multistory greenhouse. “It eliminates the need for even having a garden patch because there’s no need for soil,” says Abhishek Sharma, founder of Jaipur-based hydroponics firm, Hamari Krishi.  “All you need is sunlight.” 

Another innovative idea is underground farming which make use of under-used spaces in cities. A London-based startup, Growing Underground, is helping people cultivate herbs in World War II tunnels, using hydroponics and LED lights that mimic sunlight. Hydroponics, or the method of growing plants in a nutrient solution, instead of soil, uses 70% less water than open-field farming. The concept has already gathered followers in other cities such as New York.

But there are challenges on the way to a future that combines high-tech farming with organic principles. Avantha Agri Tech’s Bhandari says organic farming has a peculiar problem: there are barely any organic seeds. Which brings us to the controversial topic of genetically modified crops. Even though the widespread pushback against genetically modified crops has stifled experiments, scientist Rajeev Varshney believes it is impossible to produce enough to feed a projected population of 1.7 billion Indians by 2050 without using methods such as genetic engineering.

Take pulses, of which India is the world’s largest producer and consumer. The country produces 20 million tonnes and imports 9 million tonnes annually. Varshney, who won the 2015 Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize for his research, and his team at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (Icrisat) in Hyderabad, have developed legume varieties with a 24% higher yield. They are also resistant to wilt and blight diseases. A similar project on rice is under way at the International Rice Research Institute outside Manila, where scientists from 18 countries are working on rice genomes to multiply yields.

Nevertheless, the seeds of change—from blindly pursuing yields at the cost of soil quality to sustainable agriculture aimed at producing healthy food—have already been sown in India. Tsewang Norboo of the Ladakh-based Centre for Sustainable Development and Food Security has a first-hand understanding of rural and agricultural livelihoods in the Himalayan region. At the Tasting India Symposium in New Delhi in February, Norboo, who is the executive director of the nonprofit, narrated how change has unfolded in the mountains. “Use of chemicals started [in Ladakh’s farms] a few years ago,” Norboo said. “But Ladakhis soon realised what chemicals and pesticides do to the soil and the health of people.” As a result, they started adopting organic farming in a big way. But growing food in the inhospitable terrain of Ladakh is not easy. “Some technology will always be welcome,” he said.


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