Business Today

Digitising Agriculture

Ran Maidan   Delhi     Print Edition: January 15, 2017
Digitising Agriculture

By 2050, the world's population will near 10 billion people. Most of the addition will be in developing countries like India, where the improvement in quality of life is also driving an increase of per capita food consumption. As a result, to feed the world we will need to produce 50 per cent more food than we do today, while arable land and water resources are limited and scarce. At the same time, current practices in agriculture, which consume 70 per cent of the global water withdrawal (and 91 per cent in India), are mostly inefficient. An example is the still vastly used flood irrigation method, which wastes water and generates unoptimised yields. To address these challenges, the world will need to adopt smart technologies and learn how to better utilise its resources to grow more with less.

Ran Maidan, President & CEO of Netafim, a global leader in smart irrigation solutions, asserts that farmers can now control their fields remotely from the palm of their hands using their mobile phones. Agriculture is getting more and more digital, and its future lies in leveraging real-time analytics and automated systems.

India is one of the most water-challenged countries in the world, with 16 per cent of the world's population and access to only 4 per cent of the world's water resources. With more than 90 per cent of the fresh water withdrawals going to agriculture, and following the erratic monsoon and farmer's traditional use of inefficient flood irrigation - including for growing water-hungry crops like paddy, cotton and sugarcane - groundwater levels have fallen over the years. The water scarcity, decreasing cultivable land, and lower productivity are adding to the woes of the agricultural community in India, and emphasise the need for a change in the sector.

Drip irrigation is a technology that delivers to each plant the amount of water and fertilisers that it needs, when it needs and where it needs them. Thus, it enables farmers to double their yields while using only 50 per cent of the water required with traditional irrigation methods, and at the same time increases the efficiency of other farm inputs like fertilisers, pesticides, labour, etc.

India has more than 140 million hectares (Ha) of net cultivated area, and around 45 per cent of the area is irrigated. As of now, just about nine million Ha is under micro irrigation, of which drip irrigated area is about four million Ha. It means there is still a long way to go for a smarter India in agriculture.

India has fragmented land holding and drip irrigation has revolutionised the lives of small holders in India. It has proven its worth in helping small and marginal farmers achieve financial security and greater peace of mind. It has also made life easier for women farmers. In states like Gujarat, women are increasingly taking up farming. Along with other benefits, drip irrigation has helped them minimise the time they spend on fields which in turn they invest in their personal development, learning new skills, participating in village activities and forums, and take care of their family in a better way.

The government has acknowledged the need for and the potential benefits of drip irrigation and has been extending subsidy through special programmes like National Mission on Micro Irrig- ation (NMMI) and now "per drop, more crop" under Pradhan Mantri Krishi SinchayeeYojana (PMKSY), to encourage farmers to take up drip irrigation in a big way. If well implemented, these programmes will result in a win-win situation - for the farmers who will increase their income, for the industry and government, following improvement of the economy, higher food production and significant savings in resources like water and energy.

The future

These actions by the government, which should be accompanied by more aggressive promotions and simplifying the subsidy process for farmers, are essential to achieve mass adoption of smart irrigation solutions. But, as farming is becoming more advanced and technology is penetrating every aspect of our life, new technologies are required to answer the farmers' changing needs and support them in achieving better results and further improve the ease of their work.

This is exactly where smart irrigation is becoming even smarter. Agriculture is getting more and more digital, and its future lies in leveraging various data sources, real-time analytics for optimal decision-making and automated systems. Many of these new technologies are being developed in Israel, which has always been at the forefront of agriculture and water management technologies, and transferred to India following strong ties between the two countries in these areas.

Consider this. Five years ago growers went out to the field and checked whether it needed to be irrigated. Today, newly developed automated and intelligent drip irrigation systems are leveraging in-field sensors that work around the clock and check the ground's moisture, salinity and plant size to do the same. The data goes to the cloud, and together with data from external sources such as satellite images and weather forecasts, enables us to optimise results by giving the grower the right irrigation schedule. Farmers can control their fields remotely from the palm of their hands using their mobile phones - where they receive all data from the field and can operate the entire system.

Drip irrigation has helped farmers minimise the time they spend on fields, which in turn they invest in their personal development, learning new skills, participating in village activities and forums, and take care of their family in a better way. Picture: Sipra Das

Thus today, I can check, let's say, irrigated coffee estates in Karnataka or grape orchards in Maharashtra from anywhere in the world. At a time, farmers in India did not have landline phones and went straight to mobile phones. The same is true with this technology. There's incredible technology that's changing agriculture and helping farmers increase yields significantly.

For example, there is an ongoing project at Ramthal in Karnataka, which is spread over 11,000 Ha and involves more than 6,000 farmers. The community-based drip irrigation system there is controlled from one place where we can decide how much water can go to each field and when. Everything is automated and wireless. As cost of hardware, data and other digital resources are constantly going down and their functionality improves, you don't have to own a large farm to enjoy the benefits and high returns of such systems.

I believe that in five to 10 years from now, we will see in India a much wider adoption of advanced drip irrigation technologies, and every farmer will be able to have an automated, intelligent system that he can operate from his mobile device. Such mass adoption will improve the productivity of the agriculture sector and the overall economy in India will increase farmers' income. This is the future farming of a "smarter India", a future that is already happening. ~

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