New Delhi agriculture workshop points way to international collaboration

Leading agricultural scientists and educators come together to talk grand challenges for India’s farmers.

AUGUST 14, 2015 – Meeting in India’s capital the day before the country celebrated its 69th year of independence, researchers from the MIT Tata Center, IIT Bombay, and the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) assessed the state of agriculture in the country and debated approaches to bettering the lives of small-acreage farmers.

Dr. J.P. Sharma of IARI set the tone with a sobering account of the grand challenges farmers in India face. “Almost all youth are willing to leave agriculture if they are provided a suitable alternative,” he said, adding that because of India’s inheritance laws, average farm size has fallen from 2.7 hectares in the 1970s to 1.16 hectares today. Many farmers have less than an acre.

“What kind of mechanization or technology can we inject when a farmer has only 0.5 or 0.25 hectares of land?”

And that’s not all. Sharma said that “climate change has become a real threat” and that to survive in the global market, India must “offer a quality product at a reasonable price.” Yet Indian farmers already struggle with abysmally low incomes. According to Dr. Gajendra Singh, also of IARI, 50% of the nation’s workforce is in agriculture, but they only bring in 14% of the total income.

Despite all this, there is hope. Indian farmers remain a critical piece of the social fabric, providing 70% of the nation’s food. The joint meeting of experts from MIT, IITB, and IARI sought to identify interventions that would improve those farmers’ working conditions and livelihood.

Projects underway

Three sets of Tata Fellows presented their research, opening the door for collaboration with some of India’s top agricultural minds.

Ron Rosenberg and Soumya Braganza, both Masters students, described their work on providing farmers with a method for low-cost soil diagnostics, explaining that most farmers don’t have access to a reliable soil testing system, and rely on rules of thumb passed down through generations. Better soil management could save farmers money and increase yields.

Masters student Jonathan Abbott studies beekeeping, and showcased his innovations in hive design. He argued that simple alterations to beekeeping practices, such as redesigning hive entrances, using thermal barriers in the hot Indian sun, and keeping accurate records, could reduce the stresses that lead to colony collapse.

Finally, Ph.D. candidate Mark Jeunnette shared his plans to use hyperspectral imaging to get better district-level farm data and aid with crop forecasting. Jeunnette’s system involves mounting a specialized camera of his own design on an aircraft, which can then cover an entire district at 3 meter resolution.

Combining strengths

One thing that became clear was that no single approach could drastically improve in the fortunes of India’s farmers. Instead, it will require a multi-disciplinary, highly collaborative process that utilizes each group’s strengths. Neither technology nor policy alone is enough. In many cases, Dr. Singh noted, the technology that can help farmers exists, and implementing it is “a matter of political will.”

While MIT and IIT Bombay bring rigorous technical prowess to the problem, IARI brings a deep on-the-ground knowledge of the country’s agricultural systems. Working together, the hope is that these institutions can help effect large-scale change to make agriculture a sustainable way of life.

This process began with a raucous tea-time debate about which avenues to pursue. While Jeunnette and Chintan Vaishnav of the Tata Center and Dr. Indra Mani of IARI moderated, the assembled group discussed everything from preventing crop spoilage to creating an “Uber for farm equipment” before settling on a shortlist of crucial topics that will be pursued further.

Jeunnette and Vaishnav said they were hopeful that project teams would form combining all three institutions.