India has set its target to double the farmers’ income by 2022 from its base year 2015. In order to achieve the target, the sector would need to display the growth of ten per cent each year from 2015. However, not for a single year have we been able to reach the target. In addition to this, the COVID-19 pandemic has set back the growth rate, even more, making it difficult to achieve the targets.
In order to bring about the desired growth, the government of India introduced three farm laws with an intent to bring reforms in the agriculture sector. The aim behind each of the law was the same – to increase the income of farmers by involving the private sector in the agro-business. However, the laws are unacceptable to the farmers, especially belonging to Punjab, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, who are protesting against the laws and demanding for their repeal.
The major points that the debate is happening around in this dialogue include Minimum Support Price, Farmers’ Debt Liabilities, Cash transfers to keep farming viable for the small-holders, marketing reforms and so on. However, negligible attention is given to the Research and Development aspect of agriculture.
Experts have said that improving R&D on agriculture can improve the efficiency of the sector significantly, which can contribute in improving the economic position of the farmers by enabling the farmers to achieve a greater yield in lesser resources. This will also help in reducing the disguised unemployment in the agriculture sector.
Currently, India invests less than 1 per cent of its GDP in R&D on agriculture. It is much less than the percentage of GDP spent by the developing countries and Asia’s rapidly growing economies. In order to achieve growth in the agriculture sector, there is a need to make structural changes in the way the government makes investments in the agriculture sector.
Role of CSR in improving R&D on agriculture
Corporates have a major role to play in the development of the agriculture sector. The corporates are much ahead in their adoption of technology than the government. In addition to this, their dedication to research and development is much greater considering the fact that their main motive is that of profit-making.
By considering CSR as part of their operations rather than an act of philanthropy, the corporates, through R&D can find solutions for the farmers which would allow them to gain more output in lesser input. In addition to this, it can also allow the farmers to reduce their reliance on the only a few choices of crops which the governments would buy at MSPs, by opening up more marketing channels for the farmers.
Microsoft has already started walking down this path by starting a research project by the name FarmBeats in 2014. The aim of the project is to enable data-driven farming, which is now available as a platform for digital agriculture in the form of Azure FarmBeats.
The platform has two goals: first is to remove the guesswork in agriculture and provide farmers with data-driven insights. The second phase is to make data-driven agriculture more affordable. The FarmBeats team has already been able to accomplish the first of its goal. The platform creates a digital map of a farm with drone or satellite imagery as well as a grid of sensors spread across the farm that monitor multiple parameters in the soil ranging from temperature and moisture to carbon and nitrogen levels. Armed with all the data, farmers can get actionable insights with the help of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) based models, which are built by partners on Azure FarmBeats. The solution is already live in some farms in the United States, where farmers are starting to see the benefits.
In its current avatar, Azure FarmBeats works for large farms that are spread over tens or hundreds of acres. The AI models are built to ingest satellite and drone imagery and churn out insights about the farm’s health. These are combined with data from a network of sensors buried in the soil that provides real-time information from ground zero.
In order to make it more affordable for the small farms in India, the FarmBeats team came up with a solution called “Tethered Eye”, which replaces drones with helium-filled balloons and a smartphone with its camera facing down, flying at a height of 200 feet. The assembly is tethered on to a stick and one can have a person walk the length and breadth of the field to create an aerial map of the field using computer vision algorithms. In order to replace the expensive sensors to monitor the soil level data, the team has been able to innovate a solution where a smartphone’s Wi-Fi chipset is used to beam signals to the ground. Through this, the “time of flight” of the Wi-Fi signal can be analysed which can detect the soil moisture and conductivity and provide insights about watering the field and fertilizer input.
The technology is still in the early days, but it is the step in the right direction. With more such initiatives by the private sector, India’s agriculture sector can reach tremendous heights.