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Business News/ Opinion / Views/  Farm to fork: Let digital technology lead sustainability
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Farm to fork: Let digital technology lead sustainability

Digital technology can add value across the farm-to-fork chain but low adoption, small land holdings and the concentration of risks with farmers are some of the challenges we must surmount.

Photo: MintPremium
Photo: Mint

Sample this: The world’s population will grow to 10 billion by 2050; agricultural land has halved in the last 50 years; 20-40% of crop yield is lost to pests and disease and another 10-25% is lost post-harvest. Take into account geo-political factors like the Ukraine war in account, and food security is a big problem facing mankind. In all this, digital technologies may be the answer to ills in agriculture; vitally, they can help achieve sustainability if we overcome challenges.

Agriculture’s digital drive: Farming is witnessing the use of modern technology for higher productivity and profitability. Today, farmers use digital tools for farm management, financial services, market services, information and much else. ‘Smart agriculture’ uses software for remote sensing, apart from big data, the Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI). IoT in agriculture comprises sensors, drones and computer imaging integrated with analytical tools to generate actionable insights. Predictive analytics allows quick decision-making based on information drawn from data mining, data modelling and machine learning (ML). Digital adoption can add value across the entire farm-to-fork (F2F) supply chain, covering the journey from planting to harvesting (of fruits, vegetables, grains, etc) till it arrives on one’s plate. This journey’s stakeholders include farm suppliers, farmers, food processors, traders, retailers and finally end consumers.

Precision farming helps raise crop yields while minimizing the use of resources. It measures and analyses the needs of different fields and crops to aid waste management, reduce production costs, make optimal use of water and minimize environmental impacts.

Ultimately, what ties these elements across the value chain is sustainability, which refers to practices that ensure long-term increased farm production and higher income while protecting the environment. Farmers apply inputs to only those parts of the field that need it, improving product quality, reducing input cost, increasing productivity and ensuring environmental sustainability.

India’s evolving digital ecosystem and high-speed internet are making it possible for agritech startups to utilize AI/ML models. Companies using precision techniques are helping farmers increase yields substantially. Due to a rise in online agritech platforms, farmers can now sell their products directly without any middlemen involved and thereby increase their incomes. This also helps create trust and transparency between farmers and consumers.

The challenges of digital adoption in the F2F supply chain: Modern agriculture depends on a smooth supply-chain mechanism to enable the F2F model. But there are challenges here. For example, all risk is concentrated on the farmer, who is encumbered by the vagaries of weather, selection of profitable products, poor access to crop insurance, etc. We need to provide more value to the farmer in compensation for that burden.

Second, there is a fundamental trust deficit in the overall functioning of the F2F model. Over time, decision-making in food production, crop marketing, transport, etc, has got heavily concentrated in the hands of large agricultural entities or producers. While production has risen, the democratization of decision-making has suffered. Finally, the sector’s digital transformation is characterized by digital inequalities between large and small farmers, or between high- and low-income countries.

There are challenges in the supplier ecosystem too. A fertilizer or agriculture equipment manufacturer may want to help farmers but is handicapped in creating the right ecosystem to provide a holistic solution. Any solution has to be contextualized for a wide spectrum of problems across geographies and markets. Subsistence farmers cannot afford capital expenditure, and other farmers have financial constraints too. This is a major challenge at the farm level.

While there is large scope for using digital technologies for agriculture in India, various problems must be overcome. As of now, the use of farming technology among India’s farmers is low. Productivity is also low, given small landholdings and significant overcrowding, which also contributes to our low level of mechanization. Finally, the absence of agricultural marketing makes farmers depend on local traders and middlemen to sell their farm produce, which is sold at very low prices.

The grass looks greener for the future of farming: Food systems cannot be resilient to crises such as the covid pandemic if they are not sustainable. We need to redesign our food systems, which account for nearly one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions, consume large amounts of natural resources, result in biodiversity loss, and do not grant everyone fair economic returns and livelihoods, especially not our primary producers.

New technologies, combined with rising public awareness and demand for sustainable food, could benefit all stakeholders in the value chain. In India, rising internet use and smartphone penetration has changed the face of agriculture in significant ways already, especially how small and medium farmers operate. It is helping with direct access to markets, thus allowing farmers to retain a higher proportion of the value created.

Digital technology in agriculture is designed to support innovation and sustainable farm practices. To ensure its success, all changes must be holistic in their benefits and be seen as such. What is evidently favourable to farmers will acquire traction among them.

Ananth Chandramouli is managing director, India business unit, Capgemini

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Published: 12 Jan 2023, 10:17 PM IST
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