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Transition pathways to digital agriculture in India

26 March 2021

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Reported by Samuel Ward, CSaP Policy Intern.

CSaP and the IIT Delhi School of Public Policy’s latest roundtable discussion welcomed Dr. Soutrik Basu and Mr. Anupam Kumar to present their studies on how to update a nation to Agriculture 4.0.

When a farmer in India needs help, they might have only limited sources of advice available to them - their supplier, for example. A local fertilizer distributor might be faced with technical questions on a range of topics, from pesticides to financial advice. But what if the answers to these questions were instead supplied by agriculture experts, then verified by other farmers and made instantly accessible through a smart phone app?

This is smart farming. Alongside digital agriculture, it forms one face of Agriculture 4.0, an agglomeration of cutting-edge research and technology aimed at transitioning India toward a future of more efficient, productive and sustainable farming. It’s a huge field with shifting boundaries that extend beyond just farming technologies - automation, sensors, IoT, blockchain, apps and digital information systems - all the way to the policy, advice and payment systems that surround and support them. Many large economic powers around the world are investing in smart farming, but India stands out. With roughly 85% of farms smaller than 2 acres, and the nation having registered some 450 agritech start-ups already, the unique composition of India’s agriculture sector makes the nation an exciting bed for testing pathways to Agriculture 4.0.

The debate over how best to transition remains, but lessons lie in India’s rich history, with the nation having experienced rapid development over the past 100 years. The Green Revolution of the 1960s, the rejection of genetically modified produce and the recent farmers’ protests may offer clues as to the possible side effects of pursuing radical change without considering all the stakeholders. Meanwhile, today’s drive toward a technocentric, productivist mindset could yet lead to future issues around privacy and data ownership, sowing distrust in the farming community. Would an overreliance on technology decrease the overall system’s resilience? Answering these questions takes responsible research and innovation, the current landscape of which is being mapped by Dr. Basu and Mr. Kumar through the study of policy texts and smart farming apps.

They find that, despite the explosion in popularity of such apps, the quality of them and their advice is inconsistent, which could explain why only a small fraction transition from add-on service providers to real platforms that substantiate real change. Understanding this, and the experiences and interactions between farmers with other stakeholders, is key to the success of Agriculture 4.0; it needs to be suitable, compatible and affordable for small-medium family farms and the shorter food supply chains. Otherwise, it risks leaving people behind: “[will] agriculture 4.0 include or exclude through its heavy use of technologies?” Digitalisation is sometimes thought to address information asymmetry, but therein may lie potential to introduce disparity between uptakers and non-uptakers, or even within groups of uptakers who may become separated by technology-induced language barriers.

Solving these types of challenges, for farms of varying sizes, located in different geographies and run by farmers with a range of digital proficiency, demands a plurality of policy. With that must also come cooperation between all stakeholders, from researchers and policymakers right through to the farmers themselves. After all, the decision to adopt a technology remains in the hearts of the farmers, so shouldn’t farmers feel at the heart of policymaking? For India’s agricultural workforce, that could make the difference between mediocrity and world leading.

Samuel Ward

Centre for Science and Policy, University of Cambridge