Innovating for sustainability: How Indian agtech companies tackle El Niño challenges

Developments in agricultural technology in India have turned out to be game changers in the agriculture sector. These companies are leveraging technology to address the various challenges farmers face, related to climate change, improve productivity, and ensure sustainable farming practices.

Through the use of innovative solutions, they are transforming traditional farming methods and enhancing the overall efficiency and profitability of farming.

The agriculture sector which contributes $530 billion to India’s GDP plays a crucial role in ensuring food security and mitigating the effects of climate change. Innovative technology-led solutions offered by agrotech startups can have a transformative impact on agriculture.

Agriculture is now facing a serious climate hazard called El Niño, a weather phenomenon characterized by warming ocean temperatures in the central and eastern Pacific Ocean.

This warming leads to changes in atmospheric patterns, which in turn can weaken the monsoon circulation over the Indian subcontinent. Thus, El Niño years are often associated with weaker and less reliable Indian monsoons.

The deciding factor

Monsoon is a crucial factor for agriculture in India because it provides the majority of the rainfall required for growing crops, especially in rainfed agricultural areas. When El Niño occurs, it disrupts the normal monsoon patterns, resulting in decreased rainfall and erratic weather conditions across the country.

The reduction in precipitation caused by El Niño can already have major ramifications for crop production, water availability, food prices, and farmers’ incomes, ultimately affecting the food security of millions of people.

Since a large part of agriculture in India is rain dependent, low rainfall during critical cropping seasons can lead to crop failures and water scarcity. This, in turn, can lead to lower yields, lower agricultural incomes, and increase the vulnerability of farmers who depend heavily on their agricultural products for their livelihoods.

Moreover, if there are rains at an inopportune time during the wheat harvest, as predicted by El Niño experts, it can damage the crop, increase post-harvest losses, and affect the quality and quantity of crops available in the market.

Impact on the weak

The consequences of reduced crop production and increased costs can lead to food inflation, which makes staple foods more expensive for consumers. This can have a particularly severe impact on vulnerable and food insecure populations.

With more than 80 percent of farmers small and marginal, these companies are best positioned to leverage technology and innovation to address various issues, providing farmers with tools and services to improve their productivity and profitability.

To mitigate the impact of El Niño and ensure food security, it is necessary to adopt strategies that enhance agricultural resilience and reduce dependence on rainfed agriculture.

This includes promoting sustainable irrigation practices, implementing water conservation techniques, encouraging crop diversification (developing resilient crops for clients), and investing in agricultural technology innovations that improve productivity and mitigate climate risks.

proactive measures

In addition, proactive measures such as effective early warning systems, improved weather forecasting, and disaster preparedness can help farmers and policymakers anticipate and respond to El Niño-related challenges more efficiently.

By implementing adaptation strategies and building resilience within the agricultural sector, India can effectively manage the uncertainties created by El Niño events and protect the food security of its population.

Agtech interventions can play a vital role in mitigating the effects of El Niño on agriculture, although it is important to note that these interventions focus primarily on improving agricultural practices rather than directly preventing El Niño itself.

Agtech interventions can provide farmers with access to accurate weather forecasts and early warning systems. Timely information about weather patterns, including the emergence of El Niño conditions, can help farmers make informed decisions about crop planting, irrigation, and other agricultural activities.

Advanced technologies, such as satellite imagery, remote sensing, and data analytics, can be used to improve the accuracy and reliability of weather forecasting.

Agriculture in this era of technological development involves the use of technology and data-driven methods to improve farming practices. Through the use of tools such as sensors, drones, and Internet of Things (IoT) devices, farmers can monitor soil moisture levels, crop health, and other environmental parameters.

Agtech companies and research institutions are, in fact, developing climate-resilient crop varieties that can withstand the drought, heat, and other adverse conditions associated with El Niño.

These cultivars have improved tolerance to water scarcity, increased heat tolerance, or resistance to specific pests and diseases. India is making great progress in developing flood and drought resistant seeds.

According to the PIB release, during the period 2014-15 to 2022-23, the National Agricultural Research System (NARS) under the aegis of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) released 2681 varieties of high-yielding, stress-tolerant field (2279) and horticultural crops (402) for various conditions agricultural climate.

Play an empowering role

Agtech can also play an enabling role in building capacity for climate resilience through faster knowledge sharing on weather data, soil conditions and crop requirements, helping farmers make informed decisions.

These digital platforms can enable farmers to access insurance products, credit facilities and market information, reducing their exposure to income shocks caused by crop failures or price fluctuations during El Niño events.

The vulnerability of agriculture to climate change and conditions of extreme wealth is cause for concern.

According to the National Innovations in Climate Resilient Agriculture (NICRA) report, due to climate change, rainfed rice yields in India are estimated to decline by less than 2.5 percent in 2050 and 2080, and irrigated rice production by 7 percent in 2050 and 10 percent in the 2080 scenarios. In addition, wheat yield is expected to decline by 6-25 percent in 2100 and corn yield is expected to decline by 18 to 23 percent.

Although agrotechnology interventions can catalyze the process of building resilience against the effects of El Niño, a holistic approach that includes climate adaptation strategies, supportive policies and community participation is the need of the hour.

Collaboration between agritech companies, government agencies, research institutions and farmers will facilitate the implementation and scaling up of these interventions to benefit agricultural systems in the wake of climate risks.

(The author is Managing Director, GRM Overseas)