Impact of technology in post-harvest agriculture phase

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 estimates that an estimated one-third of all food produced globally is lost or goes to waste and approximately half of the population in the Third World does not have access to adequate food supplies due to wastage in the post-harvest phase. 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.

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. Such activities are designed to minimize post-harvest losses and improve distribution. It also ensures that the product is readily available for marketing. Post-harvest technology ensures that the food requirements of a growing population can be met by eliminating losses and by creating nutritive food items from raw commodities by proper processing and fortification. Technologies such as quality control and assaying ensure that the population's food requirements are met by eliminating avoidable losses. The presence of digital platforms that can be accessed by producers and buyers also entails that fair price for goods is ensured. In addition, 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 population 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. The idea of digitization has the potential to reduce this asymmetry to a very large extent, which will consequently 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.

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 price. 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 labor. With enhanced digitization and mechanization, 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 estimates. 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 realization 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. Strengthening 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.