July 22, 2022
Although India continues to lead the production of staple cereals, fruits, and vegetables, the average productivity for many crops remains low and farmers are not well compensated. The last decade has witnessed the agri-tech industry flourishing in the country, which provided a much-needed impetus to the sector’s growth. Today, technology can address most of the challenges that farmers face — from soil issues, climate and irrigation, to supply chain gaps.
Despite the remarkable progress made in increasing global food production, the FAO estimates1 that an estimated one-third of all food produced globally is lost or goes to waste and approximately half of the population2 in the Third World does not have access to adequate food supplies due to wastage in the post-harvest phase. An important issue that concerns the country’s scene to address post-harvest wastage, is not setting a Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target for the same. India is one of the few countries to have conducted two national surveys, led by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), as well as several sub-national studies and case studies by universities, local research institutions, non-governmental organizations, and international organizations, to estimate post-harvest losses of selected crops at various supply chain stages. However, no similar research of such scale to measure food waste has been undertaken. Another primary concern is that even though India continues to lead in the production of staple cereals, fruits, and vegetables, most marketplaces in India do not have systems in place that can sort commodities objectively on various parameters such as colour, size, and visual defects. This lack of standardization for horticulture commodities has also ensured that produce is not to be traded on electronic spot trading platforms. In addition, because the quality of produce is always uncertain and crops are perishable, a fragmented supply chain ensures that market linkage is localized. Thus, there is never enough storage time to figure out the right buyer or market for a commodity, which compounds the problem. A collective solution to mitigate many such challenges is by incorporating post-harvest technology, which is available in a gamut of types, catering to each issue individually. Innovative solutions like precision farming, artificial intelligence-assisted automation, and sensor and drone-based agri-input applications are reshaping the agri-farming ecosystem.
From harvesting to processing, to quality control, assaying, marketing, and trade settlements, post-harvest activities are a system of operations that are both technical and economic and are designed to minimize post-harvest losses, improve distribution, and ensure that the product is readily available for marketing. Technologies such as quality control and assaying4 ensure that the population’s food requirements are met by eliminating avoidable losses. Globalization, population growth, and rising average income all contribute to an ever-increasing need for nutritious food in both quantity and quality. This technology3 ensures that the food requirements of a growing population can be met by creating nutritive food items from raw commodities by proper processing and fortification. The presence of digital platforms that can be accessed by producers and buyers also entails that fair price for goods is ensured. In addition, smart warehousing, credit availability, and timely payments ensure that growers are provided with all the tools for them to execute trade contracts.
Rapid industrialization has shifted the horticulture industry to urban areas in India from rural areas, where 70% of the population5 depends on agriculture. This has resulted in capital drain and decreased employment opportunities in villages, which has consequently caused a mismatch of economic growth and standard of living. Therefore, technology and digitization must be leveraged to establish technological interventions across the horticulture value chain to promote real-time decision-making. Information asymmetry is present in almost every sector of the nation. Digitization has the potential to reduce this asymmetry to a very large extent, which will subsequently increase the efficiency of the value chain. Technological interventions such as Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning for quality assessment, market linkages, and integrated supply chains for storage and transportation have become critical for this sector.6 Fintech-led credit and insurance services, predictive pest control, real-time yield prediction, and intelligent machinery have all played a role in increasing output.
The establishment of digitally connected supply chains due to its inherent transparency, fairness, and access to real-time information through all stages of agriculture can transform the agri-tech sector. Connected supply chains empower farmers to choose buyers across markets thus guaranteeing the best available price7. In addition, the availability of data and usable data trends is instrumental for growers and buyers to manage their crops, inventory, and market connectivity. This also leads to defining and maintaining the quality standards of produce that will help in achieving overall food security and prosperity for all stakeholders. It is expected that a clear definition of market-acceptable parameters for produce and mobile-based technology for instant inspection will see widespread adoption amongst the grower and trader community. Quality assessment also brings in objectivity and ensures that the right material reaches the right market and is consumed within time, thus reducing wastage. It works on the philosophy of First Expire, First Out (FEFO), which means that produce that is on the verge of getting spoiled can be sold first.
One of the biggest issues that plague the agricultural sector is the seasonality of labour8. With enhanced digitization and mechanisation, this risk and associated costs can be mitigated. Advanced sorting, grading, and packing machines and post-harvest storage equipment are being developed, which will reduce wastage and increase productivity. We also anticipate that combining drone and satellite imaging with smart image recognition algorithms will become the norm for real-time mapping of crop yield estimates9. This will allow governments, corporations, growers, and buyers to understand volumes of production better and, therefore, predict price movements better.
The post-harvest value chain is a monumental aspect of agricultural production. However, inefficiencies in this value chain stifle farmer incomes and pose as a barrier to the realisation of the full potential of the country’s agriculture sector. However, the presence of innovative solutions for procurement, price forecasting, dynamic product pricing, technology-enabled farm value additions, commodity grading/sorting, and traceability will go a long way toward decreasing food wastage. A multi-stakeholder action coalition for sustainable post-harvest systems, can create cooperation and partnerships, prioritise the agenda to conduct impactful research, organize action, support the implementation of policies, and/or bolster existing ones. As a start, the private sector with the government to strengthen linkages will further help to streamline the supply chain and provide adequate remuneration to the farmer. Therefore, it is key that technology is leveraged to improve food security, by reducing food losses during the post-harvest stage for horticulture produce. For more efficient and sustainable food supply chains, bringing gainful production to farming, discovering ways to limit food wastage, and maintaining nutritional security, supply chains must be integrated from farm to fork.