Indian farms going the AI way?
State-of-the-art AI can detect plant diseases, pests, insects, locusts and chemical fertilizers, zoom in on malnourished farms, recognise plots of lands thirsty of irrigation and ascertain the urgency of treatment with fertilizers or pesticides.
From farm to fork, food is being processed not only organically but also using technology to attain better quality. While eyebrows are often raised at the addition of preservatives to extend the shelf life of packaged, canned and tinned food, the ingress of agritech via integration of artificial intelligence is a welcome advancement for agriculture. Since India's backbone is still its farmers, AI holds the key to revolutionizing the lives of farmers in India.
AI: The New Farming Tool
Agritech players introduce advanced technology to the traditional methods of farming and cultivation for higher yield, efficiency, sustainability, and profitability. Quite frequently employed in horticulture and agriculture, this cutting-edge technology is also applied to forestry, aquaculture, and viticulture.
State-of-the-art AI can detect plant diseases, pests, insects, locusts, and chemical fertilizers, zoom in on malnourished farms, recognize plots of land thirsty of irrigation and ascertain the urgency of treatment with fertilizers or pesticides. It can also incorporate innovation through vertical agriculture to ramp up output, reduce the use of exhaustive natural resources, predict seasons compatible with sowing and harvesting, and more.
Hi-tech in Agritech
AI takes away the mundane and clerical work of statistical gathering and parsing of data, not just throwing up prettified and human-readable data, but also suggesting solutions and giving advice! “Leveraging AI in the agricultural sector can unfurl a slew of benefits,” highlights Rashi Gupta, Chief Data Scientist and co-founder of REZO.AI, an AI-powered contact center, aids crop breeders in more ways than one. The company’s AI-driven CX cloud is conversant with vernaculars, thus providing customized assistance to planters by conveying relevant information to them on crucial factors like temperature, probability of rain, the best time to sow seeds, and the wind speed.
Speaking of the AI utility in agriculture, Rajesh Aggarwal, Managing Director, Insecticides India Ltd, one of India’s leading agrochemicals manufacturing companies, says “Artificial Intelligence is the future of agriculture. Technologies, such as Machine Learning (ML), deep learning and computer vision are reinventing every sector, boosting productivity and efficiency, and agriculture is undoubtedly an integral part of this nucleus.”
AI drones are the latest trend adopted by the agricultural sector and agro-industries worldwide, and they're being used to spray insecticides with far superior precision than before, without needing the farmers to be in their fields. AI also reduces many other forms of manual labor, including keeping vigil on their crops, locating weeds, and also monitoring conditions. “There are several open source solutions, such as the GIS software suite GRASS with useful algorithms for AI farming applications,” says senior solutions architect Mallory Dodd of iMerit Technology, a leading technology, and artificial intelligence (AI) data solutions firm.
Every industry that AI enters in a big way is also wary about how good the AI is. If it gets too good, it could just replace farmers. So is the inevitable future of farming just AI and robots doing it all? Maybe someday, however, for now, it's focused on aiding the farmer and making his business more efficient and more profitable.
“AI sensors can effectively ascertain the possibility of weed growth in the farms and also suggest the best herbicide as a solution. Many mechanical companies fashioned robots with spray guns to correctly watch out for weeds by using computer vision. These robots can slash the number of pesticides sprayed on crops by 80% and the cost of herbicides by 90%. By substantially curtailing the number of pesticides required in the fields, these discreet AI sprayers can uplift the quality of agricultural output, while also bolstering economic efficiency,” elaborates Saurabh Agarwal, founder and director of GROWiT India Pvt Ltd, India’s first Direct-to-Farmer (D2F) protective farming agritech entity. The firm specializes in creating high-quality and cost-effective protective farming materials and manufacturing products, plus sets an optimal standard for the Indian agricultural and farming industry, ensuring heavier yields and a lower carbon footprint.
With expertise in products like mulch films, crop cover, fruit cover, shade nets, etc., protective farming has proved to be one of the finest agricultural rituals over time. Concepts like Taluka Mapping (agricultural region mapping) of India and AI-backed smart tools to calculate the ROI (Return on Investment), all benefit farmers.
When asked whether smart tractors and robots can replace farmers in the fields, Rashi Gupta feels that technology will primarily heighten human capability.
“Smart equipment can ideally support farmers instead of removing them from the farmlands. It can definitely share the manual workload, but a bulk of operations will still depend on the farmers only,” concurs Rajesh Aggarwal. AI-propelled harvesting robots and driverless or smart tractors, he thinks, may address the issue of the farm labor crisis. Nonetheless, these technologies remain in the initial stages of their implementation. Their large-scale use is yet to be seen in India.
The AI weatherman
Climate change is an important factor that makes weather predictions or monitoring critical to farmers. “The rise in erratic weather patterns and food insecurity challenges makes the modernization of agriculture imperative. We must also factor in the sharp spike in demand for food, thanks to the bulging global population bursting at the seams,” reasons Navneet Ravikar, chairman and managing director, Leads Connect Services Pvt. Ltd., an agriculture and farm risk management company. Farmers are often dependent on monsoons for sowing crops. Can sporadic weather be predicted by AI to alert farmers to stay well-prepared for the most favorable season? “Yes, there has been substantial development and accomplishment so far in the predictive analytics for construing the dynamics of weather behaviour. Space tech, backed by AI platforms, is now in a stage of issuing advisory warnings to farmers for bracing up against any untoward situation,” reveals Ravikar.
Registering noticeable developments in the last few years in all aspects of the farming process, the agriculture sector in India exhibited immense growth. Realizing this, the Government of India unveiled a number of projects to obliterate the challenges associated with cultivation. “However, what lingered as a big woe for the farmers is the hostile weather. It massively affects soil moisture, essential for the quality production of crops,” says Mallory Dodd. She adds, “Using software solutions to model weather data against commonly-used AgTech algorithms could be beneficial to making short-term predictions in particular. That said, seasonal forecasts are much more complicated and would require not only the baseline data and AI technologies but also human expertise to make perfect predictions.”
The most crucial aspect of AI in agriculture is that it is capable of interpreting weather conditions, allowing farmers to gear up in advance for planting crop seeds or saplings. “We also need to comprehend that AI can only provide trends and predictions. Everyone is aware that farmers are quite dependent on the monsoons for their crop yields. In that case, if farmers will be able to retrieve information about the rains precisely, it will then not only prevent damage to the crops but also save their time and efforts. Weather-predicting technology piloted by AI will help farmers explore and plan when the crops can be sown or harvested,” shares Aggarwal.
“The global agricultural market size is estimated to touch an astronomical figure of USD 7.22 billion by 2026,” says Ravikar. Food is a huge industry in India. Agriculture alone is an important part of the Indian economy, contributing about 17% to the total GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and generating employment for over 60% of the population! “Agriculture in India displayed impressive growth, specifically in the area of advanced technology in recent years,” adds Saurabh Agarwal.
Artificial intelligence and digital technologies are contributing to the agricultural economy by helping farmers tide over a spate of difficulties. To ensure a rapid adoption rate of these technologies in the farming fraternity across India, significant measures have been taken by the government. “AI possesses the potential to bring about a sea change by bettering food management and decreasing losses along the entire agricultural value chain, i.e., from the farm to the final consumer. Per recent statistics, the penetration of AI injected a surplus of approximately `92,651 crore into the agriculture sector,” volunteers Saurabh Agarwal.
Aggarwal also adds that the global market size of specifically the AI-driven agricultural sector was valued at 1.1 billion US dollars in 2021, witnessing a CAGR of 25.1% to reach 4.2 billion US dollars by 2028.
Against the backdrop of its agro-based social fabric, India is gradually waking up to embrace the AI-aided ploughing methods. Having seen a green revolution, the nation is now dashing towards artificial intelligence to add another feather in its cap. Fusing established farming practices with new-age technology to gain maximum productivity, Kisan Drones are already being put to use for crop assessments, land records and insecticide spraying, promising to usher in a new dawn of technology in agriculture and farming. Drones with AI, ML and remote-discerning capabilities are becoming increasingly popular.
Artificial intelligence is certainly spreading its tentacles to research and development, and consistently foraying into both private and public sectors. “Feeding of funds, and patronage from government stables and global partners gave rise to agritech startups. However, end-to-end enforcement of AI-led interventions in agricultural network is yet to come in full force,” says Navneet Ravikar.
India's Gen-Z is pro AI
Young India comprising millennials and the next-gen represents a pool of brainy talents. This bracket of entrepreneurs and software whizkids is floating start-ups and their fledgling businesses are participating in AI-based agriculture by offering sophisticated technologies to solve complex agricultural problems. “Rezo.ai has already collaborated with one of the top agritech companies in imparting farmers with relevant facts and figures. Our AI-triggered bots enable farmers to gain knowledge that can be exploited for better harvests,” reports Rashi Gupta.
Farmers across the board in India are trying to warm up to the AI uptake in traditional farming but things take time to happen in phases, admits Aggarwal. “Most farmers are not tech-savvy and therefore, will slowly resort to hi-tech changes in agricultural practices. However, the new-age progeny that turned to agriculture as its principal occupation is quickly endorsing various technologies and converting the same into profitable businesses,” he emphasizes.
Shedding light on the Government of India's initiatives for automation objectives, Aggarwal confirms that the administration is actively boosting digital agriculture. and says “Recently, the ruling regime released SOPs (standard operating protocols) on drone applications in the agricultural sector. This will enable farmers to use drones for applying agrochemicals, thus declining the risk of susceptibility to harmful chemicals. The Digital Agriculture Mission of 2021-2025 by the Union Government launched in 2021, focuses on accelerating projects based on advanced technologies like AI, blockchain, remote sensing, and the use of drones and robots in agriculture.”
Bearing in mind that most Indian farmers hail from a humble economic background and many in the community still remain unbanked, will it take ages to make the agrarian society absorb this innovative technology? From a universal perspective, technology has always shown the two sides of the same coin as in cost-intensive products (like smart tractors and devices) and cost-effective solutions (AI bots), opines Gupta. She is optimistic and adds, “The national government is doling out a host of agricultural grants to farmers via concessions on equipment and infrastructural sops, thereby smoothening the swing to the smart agricultural fold. We perceive that the joint efforts from the government and startups should engineer this modification and put more money in the farmers’ pockets.”
Cold Chain: A Strong Link in Supply Chain
“With the swelling world population hitting the 8-billion mark, a quarter of which is dependent on small-holder farmers, a threat to food security becomes a prevailing obstacle. The use of artificial intelligence in agriculture impels better resource efficiency. This is particularly true for climate-smart deep tech-enabled solutions like Ecotron and Ecofrost,” states Vivek Pandey, co-founder and CTO of Ecozen Solutions, a Pune-based climate-smart deep tech startup that develops solutions and core technology stacks to deliver a sustainable future, including motor controls, IoT and energy storage. Allocating these technology stacks to the agricultural sector, the company revolutionized cold chains (Ecofrost) and the irrigation industry (Ecotron), thus enormously improving the income of 100,000 plus farmers and generating more than 1 billion units of clean energy (kWh).
Ecozen’s solutions reformed the irrigation and cold-chain industries with Ecotron (smart AI and IoT-assisted solar-pumping solution) and Ecofrost (smart AI and IoT-aided solar-powered cold room). With Ecofrost, farmers are empowered to reduce food waste by 15-20%, increase earnings by up to 50% and allow their produce to reach markets valued at more than 10X. This is done by ensuring effective pre-cooling and cold storage of produce at the optimum temperature (4° and above) and relative humidity (65% to 95%) levels, with up to 30 hours of batteryless backup.
Ecotron provides farmers with stable and efficient irrigation, especially in areas with inconsistent or no electricity supply. It helps increase farm yield, reduces operating costs and supplements farmer earnings.
Global AI Mission in Agriculture
Overseas, several countries are clinging to digital tools to springboard the concept of modernized farming. “The AI treatment of agriculture is a tailwind to the whole global economy. According to the United Nations’ prediction data on population and hunger, the world’s population will increase by two billion within 2050, requiring a 60 per cent jump in food production to feed the total headcount. AI and ML can help narrow this gulf between food stock and the anticipated demand for sustenance to feed additional mouths,” says Srijan Pal Singh, founder and CEO, Homi Lab. An IIM Ahmedabad alumnus and the co-author of the title Reignited With Dr. Kalam, Singh was the former advisor on policy and technology to Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, the 11th President of India.
Understanding these factors, a number of countries around the world took leaps in mingling AI with their agriculture, including developed nations like USA and the Western European countries like UK, Germany, France, Spain, among others. But there are other nations as well in this herd, especially those with huge population bases. While China and Singapore are leading the way in Asia, Iran has plans set for digital agriculture in the next couple of years. Closer home, India too is not lagging in giving a shot at sustainable farming.
Asia Pacific is the fastest-growing belt in the digital agriculture market. Skyrocketing modernization in the agriculture industry renders an impetus to this growth. The region is dominated by agriculture-dependent countries, such as India, China and Bangladesh. China already made significant investments in its agricultural industry using technologies like AI farming, sensors, drones and auto-steering to scale up efficiency and productivity.
Due to space crunch and the rise in pollution levels, experimentation finds its way through the avenues of agriculture. The science of hydroponics is adopted in many urban areas through terrace, balcony, and tank farming on the surface of gravel, sand and liquid (mainly water) with added nutrients and without soil. Plus, vertical gardens are grown on the walls and building facades, while grassy tops are added to the flat roofs of moving cabs for fresh air and adequate green cover. Even veggies are being sprouted at the International Space Station farming lab.
The confluence of mathematical models and nature makes a perfect combo. After all, every plant depends on land, air, light, water and soil or any alternative nourishing medium for growth. Using these major variables and their sub-variables like heat, acidity level, water quality etc., multiple models for predicting the plant traits can be made and managed. The hardware setup used in AI-driven hydroponic vertical gardens typically includes sensors that collect data on the plants' vital parameters, such as pH levels (acidity level) and nutrient supply. These sensors are placed near the plant roots and can also detect light density, temperature and humidity levels.
A visual camera can also be used to monitor the plants for any changes in coloration. The data collected by the sensors is then fed into an AI software tool, which uses machine-learning algorithms to analyze the info and lend insights into the plants' urgent needs.
AI can also prove to be advantageous to hybrid farming by pairing up two ideal plants to produce the best traits in the resultant sapling. Machine learning as part of AI to be specific has been deft to date in identifying different zones in the plant’s DNA. It can predict the location of genome crossovers. These are the regions where genetic material is exchanged between the paternal and maternal genomes. “By specifically targeting these areas, new hybrid varieties can be produced with the intended features. For instance, a recent study in Brazil showed that AI can create different varieties of sugarcane and forage, and even predict their performances. In terms of accuracy compared with habitual breeding techniques, the proposed methodology improved predictive powers by more than 50%,” says Singh.
AI-powered agriculture is an exciting future for India, and it's going to be surreal to see drones and self-driving tractors in our farmlands. What a sight that will be, right?
Image attribution: Freepik
- The story appeared first in Digit, a sister publication of CIO&Leader.