AI in agriculture: A new era of smart decision-making for farmers

India has the second-largest agricultural land area in the world, and 60% of rural Indian households depend on agriculture as their primary source of income. Looking ahead, the integration of Artificial Intelligence (AI) into agriculture is poised for substantial growth. This technological advancement holds the potential to revolutionize the industry by elevating crop yields, reducing wastage, and augmenting overall productivity.

According to a report by MarketsandMarkets, the market size for artificial intelligence in agriculture is expected to surge from US$ 2.35 billion in 2020 to an impressive US$ 10.83 billion by 2025, reflecting a remarkable compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 35.6% during the forecast period. This surge in AI adoption promises to usher in a new era of efficiency and sustainability for Indian agriculture. By harnessing the power of AI and emerging technologies, we can bridge the knowledge gap, increase productivity, and ultimately improve the livelihoods of farmers while ensuring food security for the nation. 

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Image source: TPCI

Artificial intelligence (AI) has the capacity to revolutionize agriculture in India. By leveraging data-driven insights, machine learning, and other AI technologies, it becomes possible to enhance various aspects of farming, such as crop management, pest control, and resource optimization. This is particularly crucial for a country like India, where agriculture plays a pivotal role in ensuring food security for its vast population.

According to the Economic Survey 2020-21, the agricultural sector’s GDP contribution is expected to be 19.9% in 2020-21, up from 17.8% in 2019-20. Even during the previous two COVID-affected years, the agriculture sector grew by 3.4% in 2020-21, while the overall economy fell by 7.2%.

According to an Avendus Capital report, Indian agritech is predicted to dominate the next decade’s technology-first value creation opportunity, increasing at a CAGR of 50% over the next five years and addressing a US$ 34 billion market by 2027. Because of the use of technology such as artificial intelligence and favourable government regulations, it is predicted to undergo exponential transformation.

Another step to boost AI in Agriculture

The World Economic Forum’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution India launched the Artificial Intelligence for Agriculture Innovation (AI4AI) initiative in August 2020, with active collaboration with the Government of Telangana and support from the Ministry of Agriculture, the National Institution for Transforming India (NITI) Aayog, and the Ministry of Electronics and IT. 

AI4AI, or Artificial Intelligence for Agricultural Innovation, is a project aimed at improving India’s agriculture sector through the use of artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies. This effort aims to improve several aspects of agriculture, including crop management, pest control, and resource optimisation, in order to increase production and sustainability, which is critical for India’s food security. The key objectives of AI4AI are:

  • To enhance digital and financial inclusivity among small and marginal farmers
  • To build trust and transparency through quality and traceability
  • To protect the environment from unsustainable practices
  • To establish sustainable farm incomes

By fostering the use of artificial intelligence and other technologies, the AI for Agriculture Innovation programme is revolutionising India’s agriculture sector. The Saagu Baagu pilot was established in collaboration with the Government of Telangana through AI4AI, making it the first Indian state to use a framework for scaling up innovative technologies and enhancing productivity, efficiency, and sustainability in agriculture. Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (C4IR) India, the Government of Telangana, and Digital Green are leading the pilot in partnership with three agricultural technology companies – AgNext, Krishitantra, and Kalgudi.

More than 7,000 farmers had signed up for the trial initiative as of January 2023. These farmers are receiving assistance in the form of various AI technologies, such as sowing quality testing, soil testing, crop health monitoring, window forecasting, and tillage estimation, as well as access to new consumers and suppliers in various geographies.

Challenges in implementing AI for agriculture in India

Food and agriculture systems today are unsustainable for both people and the planet. They operate at a high environmental cost, waste large amounts of product and leave many producers in emerging markets at or below the poverty level. Challenges faced by the agriculture sector include the following: 

  • Small and marginal farmers: Small and marginal farmers (86% of farmers) own less than two hectares of the total cultivators in India, causing unsustainable farm incomes and poverty.
  • Unsustainable farming practices: unsustainable farming practices encompass various aspects, including intensive animal agriculture, mono-cropping, overuse of fertilizers, and GMO (genetically modified organism) cultivation, all of which have adverse effects on the environment and society.
  • Gaps in market linkages: Another challenge Indian farmers face is price discovery for farmers and price volatility in the market.
  • Shrinking land: Raising productivity would require intensification of inputs, combined with an increase in per-capita availability of land. India is constrained on both fronts.
  • Emerging technology: Low adoption levels of emerging technologies in agriculture are due in large part to the complexity of the sector, which features small farm sizes, lack of telecoms infrastructure in rural areas, high regulatory burdens which raise costs, and revenues constrained by customers’ limited ability and willingness to pay.

The impact of AI on agriculture in India

Bhuvana, an agriculture economist, told IBT that, “Agriculture in India, with its vast arable land and diverse crop production, is at a crossroads. The adoption of artificial intelligence presents an unprecedented opportunity to transform this sector. By harnessing the power of AI, we can bridge the knowledge gap, increase productivity, and ultimately improve the livelihoods of farmers while ensuring food security for the nation.”

Emerging technologies, from drones to digitalisation, have the potential to transform farming productivity, reduce environmental impact and boost farmers’ incomes. Emerging technologies, such as AI, blockchain, drones, IoT, big data analytics, cloud computing, and robotics, have the potential to enhance productivity and efficiency at all stages of the agricultural value chain, boosting farmers’ incomes, and increasing farm productivity while reducing waste, and enhancing supply-chain efficiency, transparency, and sustainable resource use. 

AI helps in precision farming by analysing data from various sources, such as satellite imagery, weather forecasts, and soil conditions. This enables farmers to make informed decisions about planting, irrigation, and harvesting, leading to higher crop yields and reduced resource waste. AI-driven technologies can detect diseases, pests, and nutrient deficiencies in crops through image analysis. This early detection allows farmers to take timely corrective measures, minimising crop loss. 

AI can help detect field boundaries and bodies of water to enable sustainable farming practices and improve crop yields. AI helps optimise water usage in agriculture. Through data analysis, it can recommend the most efficient irrigation techniques, leading to a 50% reduction in water usage. AI can provide market insights and price predictions, helping farmers make informed decisions about when and where to sell their produce and maximise profits. AI-driven automation and robotics are increasingly used in tasks like harvesting and weeding, reducing the labour-intensive nature of farming and addressing labour shortages. 

According to Mr. Arvind Godara, co-founder at AgriBolo, “AI has the transformative power to revolutionise Indian agriculture, particularly for small and marginal farmers. By enabling last-mile technology delivery and providing 360-degree solutions, AI can empower farmers from advisories to crop management, harvest, and market access. As technology becomes more accessible and affordable, it’s not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’ farmers fully embrace these innovations, ushering in a new era of smart decision-making in agriculture.”

However, new challenges will probably be brought on by emerging technologies. They may have unintended consequences that need to be thought about and investigated beforehand, such as data breaches and a lack of digital inclusivity. Their advantageous effects might be unequally distributed, potentially widening the gap between the rich and the poor. Investors, innovators, and policy-makers will need to make deliberate and coordinated efforts to harness the benefits of technological innovation and avoid potential drawbacks.

Examples of countries like Israel, China and the US can be taken for understanding the transformational impact using technology can have on revolutionising agricultural practices and subsequently, the lives of people associated with the agricultural industry. The use of AI, IoT, Big Data Analytics, drones for farm mapping, ICT applications, and technology for weather forecasting, amongst numerous other technological applications prove the potential Indian agritech startups have in transforming the country’s agriculture industry. 

A rise in agritech startups in recent years has been referred to as the “ray of hope” for Indian agriculture.  Additionally, it is increasingly clear that agritech startups can offer pertinent and original solutions to the problems encountered throughout the agricultural value chain. As of April 10, 2023, more than 18,000 people are employed by the approximately 2207 DPIIT-recognised startups in the agri-tech sector, which is distributed across 360 districts. As of April 17, 2023, Maharashtra had 459 recognised startups, the highest number in this industry.

The integration of AI in agriculture represents a transformative opportunity for India, a country deeply rooted in its agricultural traditions. The potential benefits are substantial, from precision farming that enhances crop yields while reducing resource waste to improved market insights that empower farmers to make informed decisions. However, the journey towards realizing this potential is not without its challenges, including issues related to small and marginal farmers, unsustainable practices, market linkages, and technological infrastructure.

Nevertheless, with concerted efforts from stakeholders and policymakers, the ray of hope lies in the burgeoning agri-tech startup ecosystem, which is poised to drive innovation and sustainability throughout the agricultural value chain. As the nation continues to embrace AI and emerging technologies in agriculture, there is a promising path forward, marked by the potential for increased productivity, reduced environmental impact, and improved livelihoods for farmers, ultimately securing food security for the nation.

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