Charting the future of agriculture in India

The pain points are many from outdated farming practices, to lack of scientific innovation and poor policymaking

image credit- shuttershock.com

image credit- shuttershock.com

For decades, agriculture has been a cornerstone of the Indian economy. Once an agrarian economy Indian markets driven mostly by massive urbanization and buttressed by a growing middle class have now matured beyond agriculture. However approximately 70 per cent of India’s rural households still depend primarily on agriculture for their livelihood. Furthermore, India’s agricultural exports account for about 12-13 per cent of India’s exports.

While the agricultural revolution of the 60’s addressed India’s food security, modern demands from this sector far exceed simple self-sufficiency. And herein lies the problem. India’s farm productivity has largely stagnated. Agriculture’s contribution to India’s GDP has reduced over the years, from 50 per cent in 1950 to 17.3 per cent in 2016. From being the largest contributor to the country’s GDP, agriculture is now in real danger of becoming an also-ran or worse still an Achilles heel in a growing economy.

The pain points are many from outdated farming practices, to lack of scientific innovation and poor policymaking. As policy-makers and funding agencies wake up to this challenge, the need of the hour is to increase agricultural productivity through focused research and need-driven innovation.

For instance, Bengaluru based Sea6energy Pvt Ltd, a young bio-energy company, is working on developing an end-to-end solution to replace fossil fuels and fossil fuel derivatives in our daily lives including in agriculture. Sea6 Energy is guiding its efforts towards low-cost, large scale cultivation of red seaweed on the ocean and developing salt water based biotechnological processes to produce a plethora of 100 per cent natural and organic value-added products from red seaweed. For example, an agricultural biostimulant, a plant immunity booster, animal and human food additives, bioplastic and other such applications of the seaweed isolate phycocolloids. They have commercialized two products as of now and both have shown tremendous capabilities in increasing farm productivity and improving disease resistance.

Another startup FIB-SOL Life Technologies, based out of IIT-Madras, has developed low-weight biodegradable and low-cost biofertiliser technology. The product is a water soluble, nano-fibre based mesh which can be embedded with beneficial microbes that boost soil quality parameters. The technology can be easily diversified to support fertilisers, pesticides and biostimulants. The simplicity and affordability of the solution means immense potential for integration and impact.

Indian farmers usually do not wear any protective gear while spraying chemical-based pesticides in fields. This exposes them to harmful toxins, especially neurotoxins, causing severe health impacts and even death in extreme cases. Bengaluru based Sepio Health Pvt Ltd has developed a protective gel that when applied on skin can can neutralize toxins in pesticides, insecticides and fungicides. Once deactivated the chemicals do not cause harm to internal organs like brain and lungs even if absorbed topically. The group has also developed an active mask to deactivate pesticides.  

All three of these exciting startups are from C-CAMP which is home to over 150 startups in life sciences including agriculture. However, despite these success stories, we are yet to see a boom in the agriculture innovation sector. This could be because, agri-related problems are not clearly articulated or discussed in socio-scientific circles to attract innovator or even market attention. Even the technology advances that have happened have not been properly integrated on the ground. This situation thus poses a tremendous scope for science-driven innovations in agriculture and actual implementation of these solutions.

In August 2018, Department of Information Technology & Biotechnology, and Department of Agriculture, Govt. of Karnataka launched a Centre of Excellence for Agri-Innovation, in collaboration with C-CAMP. The CoE is a concerted effort to galvanize the agriculture innovation arena in India in the same vein as the healthcare domain and bring about transformational changes in the agro-economy of the country. The Centre’s activities have kicked off with a six-month Agri-immersion scheme to identify critical gaps in agriculture spanning the whole agri value chain. The program will identify key sectors/pain points in agriculture by bringing innovators on the same table as farmers and other stakeholders in Agriculture.

 

Dr Neelanjana Janardan, Senior Program Manager, Center for Cellular and Molecular Platforms (C-CAMP), Bengaluru

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