The world’s population is predicted to reach 10 billion in the year 2056. This growth combined with urbanisation—both in developed and developing nations—will increase the demand for preservative-free, fairly produced, and sustainable food. Because the purchasing power of the middle class around the world has increased, global food consumption patterns will shift from basic staples to more varietal that are produced with a high standard of safety. This change will impact global food demand and security.

In India, where the farmer is not yet equipped with the latest technology nor trained to adopt it fast, digital farming is slowly entering Indian farms to assist farmers in better decision making.

The role of technology

Digital technologies that were once barely imagined are now a reality in today’s farming practices and they are replaying an increasingly critical role. The digitalisation of agribusiness, which involves leveraging the massive amounts of data from agricultural equipment, soil, weather, seeds and chemicals and using modern computer science to automate agriculture, is playing a key role in meeting global food demand. Growers with access to the right information at the right time are gaining access to insight that is helping to improve their production exponentially.

A growing number of technology industry experts, entrepreneurs and investors have taken notice of the digital agriculture opportunity and are investing in agriculture technology. Indian agtech start-ups—nearly 300 of them—in the hunt for a sustainable farming solution to a rapidly rising population are changing the face of agriculture, one step at a time. With the global smart farming market set to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 13.27% to reach $12 billion by 2021, India is at the threshold as it is home to one-fifth of the global smallholder farmers.

Technological and business challenges

Digitalisation has changed how the agriculture business is operating, from the way dairy farmers tend their cows and get micro-insurance against bad weather to how they determine the most scientifically optimal time to plant crops. However, there is still a digital divide in agriculture, not only with technological infrastructure and connectivity, but also in terms of an ineffective knowledge exchange, management of information content and the diverse needs of different groups.

Amidst this digitalisation, there is still a lag in understanding certain aspects of agriculture operations, such as: How to improve the yield and quality? How to avoid crop diseases? Is the crop in a healthier condition? Will the payment be made on time?

Let us discuss how digitalisation can address the challenges of crop yield and optimising the yield.

Farmers are always challenged to grow more while coping with volatile weather to meet the rising demand for more food of higher quality. This demands improving efficiency on inputs and outputs and various technologies have evolved in order to improve the efficiency.

Role of bioscience and biotechnology

Biosciences offer great potential to significantly impact agricultural technology, particularly biotechnology. To increase yields and reduce costs, farmers are using a wide variety of new bioscience technologies that optimise inputs to agricultural production.

A Bengaluru-based startup has developed a product in bio-stimulant segment to provide growers with a reliable solution to improve crop quality and productivity.

Providing inputs to farmers on crop and soil management during their entire cropping cycle by a startup led to remarkable results in Madhya Pradesh, achieving increased yields of 40% for garlic.

Precision agriculture

Precision agriculture is adopted by the farmers to optimise their use of resources—be it water or fertiliser—aiming to bring efficiency to the farm in terms of cost, yield, etc. Further, it will support decision making in irrigation, crop management, water optimisation, and the like.

Precision agriculture technologies ranging from robots, sensors, drones, satellite imagery, big data and Internet of Things (IoT), among others, are employed in various stages of agriculture from environment analysis, irrigated landscape mapping, soil analysis, to crop health analysis. These technologies bring in reliable quality data which help in timely crop damage assessment, advance crop planning, diversification and contingency planning. Here are few examples of technologies in precision agriculture.

Drones

Drones are an invaluable tool for farmers as they help them scan fields, monitor crops, seeding and analyse plant health, among others. Drones with advanced sensors and imaging processing capabilities can capture highly accurate images of the field, which expose everything from irrigation problems to soil variation and even pest and fungal infestations by seeing crops from the air.

India has recently unveiled its ‘Drone Regulation 1.0” policy which will come into effect from December 1. These guidelines will foster technology and innovation in the development of drones—devices which have an extensive range of applications ranging from disaster relief to agriculture. A Hyderabad-based engineering design services company and a leading fertiliser company in south India are working together on a precision agriculture project to monitor farms using drones in order to monitor and act on crop health.

Field sensors

Sensors capable of providing farmers with information about crop yields, rainfall, pest infestation, and soil nutrition are invaluable to production and offer precise data which can be used to improve farming techniques over time.

Data-enabled agriculture combines the application of sensors’ connectivity, drone, data storage and aggregation, optimisation hardware, software platforms, big data analytics and IoT, converting traditional farming into smart farming.

Researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur have developed a smart solution for farmers to help monitor soil moisture, soil temperature, nutrient contents and water level using battery-less sensor nodes.

Big data analytics

Farmers who are practising precision agriculture will have big blobs of big data at their disposal. With the help of big data and data analytics, farmers can have real-time insights to help performance optimisation. Advanced analytics can show how farmers are utilising their inputs and what adaptations are required to take account of emerging weather events or disease outbreaks.

The Indian government is also serious about leveraging new-era digital technologies for agriculture. In May, the NITI Aayog, the government’s main think-tank, signed an agreement with one of the big software firms to develop a model for crop-yield predictions using artificial intelligence (AI) so that farmers can be provided real-time advisories.

IoT

IoT is leveraged to remotely monitor sensors that can detect soil moisture, crop growth and livestock feed levels, remotely manage and control their smart connected harvesters and irrigation equipment, and utilise AI-based analytics to quickly analyse operational data combined with third party information, such as weather information, to provide new insights and helps to decision making that is crop selection, crop outputs, etc.

The way ahead

Internet usage by 2020 in rural India is expected to be 315 million and it may lead to penetration in rural areas and that would be the inflection point for the agtech market in India. Agriculture startups can unleash umpteen opportunities to strengthen the supply chain in Indian agriculture. We really need to move with a sense of urgency to apply these new tools to accelerate the pace of agriculture development.

Sethi is senior manager and Dhingra is manager at Publicis. Sapient. Views are personal

Follow us on Facebook, Twitter & YouTube to never miss an update from Fortune India. To buy a copy, visit Amazon.