Bhau Kadam (name changed) is a small sugarcane farmer in western Maharashtra. He and his family own about 3 hectares of land. Kadam has two sons who are both graduates and work in Pune. When I asked him why he did not make his sons farmers, he said that farming is hard work, is non-remunerative and it is difficult to get labour. Besides he also thinks that a farmer's son is a non- marriageable commodity and that his sons have a better life in Pune.
Kadam is getting on with age and is thinking of selling his land to the highest bidder. He may even go and stay with his sons in Pune.
Village after village and state after state, this is the story of most farmers in India. They want to sell their land and move out of farming. Indian agriculture is in crisis. No matter how advanced or rich we become, all of us have to eat food. We cannot eat software or nuts and bolts!
"No matter how advanced or rich we become, all of us have to eat food. We cannot eat software or nuts and bolts!"
I feel the wealth and security of the country comes from its land and hence what is needed is sustainable, high-tech and high-productivity agriculture which will be remunerative and help provide both food and energy security for the country.
I believe that precision agriculture will help bring in the next green revolution to Indian agriculture.
The agricultural scenario in India
India is characterised by small farms. More than 80% of total land holdings in the country are less than 2 ha (5 acres). Most crops are rain fed, with only about 45% of the land irrigated. According to some estimates, around 55% of total population of India depends on farming. In the US, because of heavy mechanisation of agriculture, it is about 2%.
Because of poor availability of funds, farm inputs, poor support price structure for the produce and almost no farm insurance, most of the farming is non-remunerative and more than 50% of the farmers in India are in debt. This is the main reason for a large number of farmer suicides.
Also without mechanisation farming is hard, back-breaking work. This has resulted in most farmers' children choosing other vocations. Also farmers get more money in selling their land to builders, malls and factories than they would from farming. This has made it even more imperative to increase productivity so that the shrinking farmlands can feed the billion plus people of India in the future.
"Precision agriculture (PA), as the name implies, refers to the application of precise and correct amounts of inputs like water, fertilisers, pesticides etc. at the correct time to the crop for increasing its productivity and maximising its yields."
India, though one of the biggest producers of agricultural products, has very low farm productivity. Productivity needs to be increased so that farmers can get more remuneration from the same piece of land with less labour. Precision agriculture may provide a way to do it.
What is precision agriculture?
Precision agriculture (PA), as the name implies, refers to the application of precise and correct amounts of inputs like water, fertilisers, pesticides etc. at the correct time to the crop for increasing its productivity and maximising its yields.
PA originated in the US and European countries. Since the farms in these countries are generally big (> 100 ha), Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) technology is extensively used in PA. GPS allows precise mapping of the farms and together with appropriate software informs the farmer about the status of his crop and which part of the farm requires inputs such as water or fertiliser.
Precision agriculture in western countries is also characterised by the use of heavy farm machinery (average power of the machinery is 100-200 kW) for all the farm and field operations such as sowing, harvesting, weeding, baling etc. This machinery runs on fossil fuels and uses more than 60% of the total energy employed in farming. Besides, the heavy farm machinery also compacts the soil and makes it unproductive.
PA for small farms on the other hand can use small farm machinery and robots which will not compact the soil and may also run on renewable fuels like bio oil, compressed biogas and electricity produced on farms by agricultural residues.
For small farms, precision agriculture may include sub-surface drip irrigation for precise water and fertiliser application and robots for no-till sowing, weed removal, harvesting and other operations. Some of these robots are already being used on small farms in the US and Europe (see for example here) and with vigorous R&D taking place, it is expected that they may be deployed in large scale in the near future.
" The ultimate role of a farmer should be to identify better crops... in effect become a breeder of sorts. Progressive farmers already do that and with more time available to them because of PA they may be able to produce better and higher yielding varieties. "
Similarly, drones have also been introduced in Japan and the U.S. for mapping the farms, identifying diseases and so on.
Most robotic machines and drones are compact and thus suitable for small farms. India's small farms, therefore, are ideal for the large-scale application of precision agriculture.
Overcoming problems with mechanised agriculture
The biggest criticism of mechanised agriculture is that the farm machinery is very costly and few farmers can afford them. However, a way out would be to establish farm machinery leasing agencies in rural areas. These enterprises will lease the mechanised equipment, including drip irrigation systems, to the farmers and also provide trained manpower to run these machines. Such a thing already exists on a limited scale in India where some agencies do the wheat harvesting using combines and spraying of crops. They charge the farmers on a per hour basis. And with not enough farm labour available, it is an attractive and economical concept for many agriculturists.
Critics of mechanisation also contend that by timely sowing of crops and applying proper and recommended water and fertiliser to it, a farmer can easily improve the productivity of crops. However a correct and timely application of inputs is contingent on the availability of labour, water and fertiliser. This isn't always possible especially since so many farmers depend on the weather gods for their irrigation and labour is scarce. Precision agriculture can help in this matter.
The ultimate role of a farmer should be to identify better crops, use the seed to propagate it further and hence in effect become a breeder of sorts. Progressive farmers already do that and with more time available to them because of PA they may be able to produce better and higher yielding varieties. Also mechanisation will make the growing of crops seem less daunting and may attract more people to take up farming in a big way.
The way forward
The most important component in taking PA forward will be in creating a huge resource of engineers, scientists and agriculturists to develop various components of the technology. Without excellent manpower and consequently good R&D, PA will not succeed. Unfortunately, most good students want to get into engineering and medical streams. Agriculture becomes an afterthought. There is a need for excellent engineers from institutions like IITs, NITs, etc. to design machinery like robots and drones for PA. This can be facilitated by establishing a new branch of engineering called agricultural mechanotrics or robotics where faculty and students from almost all branches of engineering will interact and collaborate to develop smart systems for PA.
"There is a need for excellent engineers from institutions like IITs, NITs, etc. to design machinery like robots and drones for PA. This can be facilitated by establishing a new branch of engineering called agricultural mechanotrics or robotics..."
Another way forward is when scientists from ICAR institutes, engineers, industries and farmers work together in developing PA. I think industries have to take charge since they will develop the machinery and set up the leasing agencies. And with jobs creation in PA better students will want to pursue a career related to agriculture.
I also feel that PA may provide a platform for industrial corporate social responsibility (CSR) activity by helping the rural poor improve their livelihood through high-tech farming. The Government of India can facilitate in this process by giving soft loans and sops to the industry so that they get more engaged in agriculture and PA activities.
High-tech PA therefore can help in bringing next green revolution to India and can produce tremendous rural wealth in a sustainable and environmentally sound way.