Digital Agriculture: Why we need to digitally enable farm policies

Agriculture is continuing to show resilience in the face of one of the most disruptive crises the world has ever seen. In the first quarter of the financial year ended June 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic contracted the Indian economy by 23.9%, with a 40% drop in manufacturing and muted activity in the service sector.

Agriculture was the lone bright spot and grew 3.4%. Agriculture not only grew and propped up a pandemic-hit economy but created jobs too. This indicates that to make our world more sustainable and inclusive, all of us-citizens, businesses, and the government-must double down to spur rural growth.

Emergence of agritech startups

Agriculture in India continues to battle the challenge of low farmer income and declining productivity. Technology can be a gamechanger and it is heartening to see agritech startups taking the lead in bringing smart, implementable solutions to farmers in India. According to Nasscom, India has over 450 startups in this space. Funding is up 300% over the previous year. The focus is on digital transformation for creating new value chains that are innovative and disruptive. More than 50% of these agritech startups offer supply chain solutions, including market linkages and better access to farm inputs. It augurs well that experts estimate we’ll see 9 million jobs in this space by 2024, and most will be in rural areas.

How we farm and use our land is responsible for about one-quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. If we include emissions from processing, transport, storage, cooling, and disposal, that figure rises to more than 40%. Agritech, particularly digital solutions, can certainly help alleviate this.

Digital interventions need of the hour

The government of India announced three new policies recently. The bill on agriculture markets called the ‘Farmer’s Product Trade & Commerce Bill, 2020’, seeks to promote an ecosystem where farmers can choose who to sell to for realising the best prices. A digital portal can increase pricing transparency and enable more profitable trades. Leveraging the country’s robust digital payment systems will ensure speedy financial realisation. The government’s stated objective of facilitative electronic trading can thus be actualised.

The bill on contract farming, ‘The Farmer Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services, 2020’ aims to offset scale issues and enable aggregation benefits to accrue to the farming community. The belief is that Farmer Producer Organisations (FPOs) will collectively wield more negotiating clout to realise a larger share of what the consumer pays. The first requirement for this is that FPOs be equipped with collaborative tools for holding video and audio discussions at scale using any media, with the ability to translate and transcribe conversations as necessary. FPOs will also be able to make other technology and tools widely available and affordable by sharing costs. And that includes drones for planting seeds and spraying pesticides, curtailing waste or limiting pilferage, smart tractors for seed placements and tillage prescriptions, the use of IOT for monitoring soil characteristics or AI for prognostic guidance.

The Essential Commodities Amendment Bill, 2020, while reducing the number of essential commodities, also aims to invest in the food supply chain infrastructure and modernisation. Digital interventions in cold storage and warehouses to optimise people and asset productivity, robotic innovations, and online tracking will change the agricultural landscape.

New policies, enabled digitally, can deliver intended benefits much more effectively to the farming community and help sustain and grow the rural economy.