Digital agriculture for sustainable food

Digital agriculture technologies have the potential to address negative side effects of the Green Revolution.

Digital Agriculture, according to Burno Basso, Professor in the College of Natural Science at Michigan State University is-where agriculture, science, policy and education intersect. Putting that data to use, requires an effective balancing of competing economic and social interests while minimizing trade-offs.

Technologies like genetic modification and crop production automation help produce more food than we need to survive. And while the modern food system is a monument to human ingenuity and innovation, it is not without problems.

Agriculture’s contributions to greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution and Biodiversity loss show that major agricultural system are on a largely unsustainable trajectory. And as the population increase energy demands and pollution scale accordingly.

There are too many barriers, too many competing interests. We need to bring people to the table and design a system that works for everyone-farmers, lawmakers, and society and future generations.

Digital Agriculture is the use of new and advanced technologies, integrated into one system, to enable farmers and other stackholders within the agriculture value chain to improve food production.

Most of today’s farmers make decisions such as, how much fertilisers to apply based on a combination of rough measurements, experiences and recommendations.

Once a course of action is decided, it is implemented but the result are normally not seen until harvest time. In contrast , a digital agriculture system gathers data more frequently and accurately offer combined with external resource ( such as weather information).

The resulting combined data is analysed and interpreted so that farmer can make more informed and appropriate decisions. These decisions can then be quickly implemented with greater accuracy through robotic and advanced machinery and farmers can get real-time feedback on the impact their actions.

Emerging digital technologies have the potential to change farming beyond recognition. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has referred to this change as a revolutions “a digital agriculture revolutions” will be the newest shift which could help ensure agriculture meets the needs of the global population into the future.

Digital agriculture technologies have the potential to address negative side effects of the Green Revolution. In some ways, the Digital Agriculture Revolution follows patterns of previous agricultural revolutions. In the other ways, the Digital Agriculture Revolution is distinct from its predecessors.

First, digital technologies will affect all parts of agricultural value chain, including off-farms segments. This differs from the first three agricultural revolutions which primarily impacted production techniques and on-farm technologies. Second, a farmer’s role will require more data analysis skills and less physical interaction with livestock/ fields. Third, although farming has always relied on empirical evidence, the volume of data and the methods of analysis will undergo drastic changes in the digital revolution.

Finally, increased reliance on big data may increase the power differential between farmers and information service providers or between farmers and large value chain actors.

Digital agriculture encompasses a wide range of technologies, most of which have multiple applications along the agricultural value chain. These technologies include but are not limited to: cloud computing/ big data analysis tool; Artificial Intelligence (AI)  distributed ledger technologies including block chain and smart contracts ;the internet of things; digital communication technologies like mobile phones ;digital platforms, such as e-commerce platforms, agro-advisory apps or e-extension websites. Each one of these brings something valuable to farming from data collection through the management and processing as well guidance and direction. This integrated system offers new insight that enhances the ability to make decisions and subsequently implement them.

On the other hand precision agriculture technologies includes: sensors, including food sensors and soil sensors, guidance and tracking system ;variable –rate input technologies ; automatic section control ; advanced imaging technologies, including satellite and drone imagery to look at temperature gradients and anomalies in field ; automatic machinery and agricultural robots.

The FAO estimates the world will need to produce 56% more foods (as compared to 2010, under business as usual growth) to feed over 9 billion in 2050. Furthermore, the world faces increasing challenges like malnutrition, climate change, food waste and changing diets. To produce a sustainable food future “the world must increase food production” which will cut down GHG emission and maintaining (or reducing) the land used in agriculture. Digital agriculture could address these challenges by making the agricultural value chain more efficient, equitable and environmentally sustainable.

Digital technology changes economic activity by lowering the costs of replicating; transporting; tracking verifying and searching for data. Due to these falling costs, digital technology will improve efficiency throughout the agricultural value chain.

Digital agriculture can improve the allocative efficiency of physical capital within and between farms. Often touted as ‘uber for tractors’ equipment sharing platforms like-Hello Tractor, WeFarmup, machinery link solutions, TroTro Tractors and Tringo facilitates farmers’ rental of expensive machinery.

Digital agriculture improve labour productivity through improve farmers knowledge. E-extension allows for farming knowledge and skills to diffuse at low cost. Finally, digital agriculture improve labour productivity through decreased labour requirements.

Automation, inherent in precision agriculture - from ‘milking robots on dairy farms to greenhouse with automated climate control can make crop and livestock management efficient by reducing labour.

Digital agriculture has the potentials to make agriculture more productive, more consistent and to use time and resources more efficiently. This brings critical advantages for farmers and wider social benefits around the world. It also enables organisations across traditional industry boundaries to open up new, disruptive opportunities. When will such agriculture take place in Manipur?

(The views expressed are the writers' own)

First Published: July 19, 2020, 10:14 p.m.