Climate Proofing Indian Agriculture with Precision Farming Technology

Can precision agritech alleviate the impact of climate change and improve farmer incomes?

India is among the top 10 countries in the climate vulnerability index and is already grappling with challenges such as rising temperatures, erratic precipitation, and extreme weather events. Current farming practices in India are exacerbating the situation, consuming 85% of our freshwater resources while accounting for 20% of the country’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. With collapsing soil fertility and rising population, India may face a 42 million MT shortfall of fresh fruits and vegetables within a decade. Using our finite resources judiciously, how can we sustainably increase our food production capacities?

Over the past five years, investment in agritech solutions addressing these social and environmental challenges has surged. Today, the Indian agritech ecosystem has deep engagement from accelerators, venture capital firms, impact investors, large domestic corporates, MNCs, and public sector institutions. Between, 2014 and 2019, India saw 38 investments in Precision Agriculture, which focuses on increasing farmer profitability and sustainability, making it one of the top five agritech investment themes.

The Green Revolution legacy playbook for Indian farming has very little to offer for dealing with collapsing water tables, decreasing soil fertility, erratic rainfall, and rising temperatures. With increasing capital availability, more and more Precision Agriculture startups are working to solve climate challenges, especially targeted solutions to optimize use of scarce resources while helping farmers improve their profit margins.

Precision Agriculture, like all farming, starts with the soil. Soil health in India is terribly neglected, with government and private labs failing to have any impact. Soil samples are usually collected via a grid system, a flawed approach given Indian landholding patterns. Due to small farm sizes, an area spread across even a few hectares can have significantly varied soil health. Furthermore, test results can take anywhere from weeks to months to reach farmers, often only arriving after fields have already been sowed. It should be of little surprise that an estimated 5.3 billion MT of soil is degraded each year due to incorrect fertilization. Precision Agriculture technologies help farmers understand farm-specific soil nutrition requirements and accurately determine the required quantum of fertilizer, thus saving money and natural resources. From Omnivore’s portfolio, Krishitantra provides rapid IoT-based soil testing and soil nutrition advisory solutions to farmers helping them to reduce their expenditure on fertilizers while increasing their crop yields. Krishitantra delivers test results within 30 minutes and at one-fifth of the current cost of soil testing at labs. As Krishitantra scales up, we expect that it will be able to help curb the indiscriminate use of expensive chemical fertilizers.

However, for such Precision Agriculture innovators to rewrite age-old agricultural practices, access to technology is key for effective adoption. With increasingly ubiquitous 4G connectivity and cheaper cloud computing, agritech startups can now build rich multidimensional datasets for improving predictive analysis on farms. Furthermore, rising smartphone penetration has empowered farmers to access on-farm sensors that can reveal deep insights about microclimate and other field conditions. Case in point, Fasal, an Omnivore portfolio company, is offering an AI-powered IoT platform for horticulture farmers. Fasal sensors monitor critical on-farm parameters and generate microclimatic forecasts, disease and pest predictions, and irrigation alerts, all delivered through a smartphone app. With this model, Fasal has helped save 3 billion litres of water, reduced pesticide usage by 60%, and increased yields by 40%. These inspiring numbers are a testament to the immense potential of Precision Agriculture technologies in the crusade against climate change.

While Precision Agriculture startups have caught investors’ attention over the past five years, greenhouse (including polyhouse and nethouse) farming has been a part of Indian agriculture for over two decades now. We already have significant horticulture production in peri-urban areas, which is rapidly converting to protected cultivation using Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) technologies to manage heat, humidity, ventilation, and sunlight. CEA ensures that biotic and abiotic risks to crops are mitigated, and can work across a wide range of fruits and vegetables. As climate change gets worse over time, CEA greenhouses will be critical to ensure the viability of horticulture production in India. Our portfolio company, Clover, is building the largest network of greenhouse farmers in India, helping them to improve their profitability and sustainability while delivering the highest quality branded fresh produce to consumers.

It is clear that climate change is going to be a transformative force in Indian agriculture. Our responsibility is not only to feed 1.5 billion people by 2030, but also ensure that we are climate proofing our smallholder farmers against rising volatility. To achieve this, it is imperative to accelerate the adoption of a whole range of Precision Agriculture technologies. Only by growing more with less inputs, while reducing the dependence on climate-vulnerable open field agriculture, can we ensure food security and farmer resilience.

Omnivore is a venture capital firm, based in India, which funds entrepreneurs building the future of agriculture and food systems.