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Agritech Start-ups Should Design Automated Products: Asis Datta, Indian Biochemist & Genetic Engineer

In an interview with BW Disrupt, Prof. Asis Datta- Indian biochemist, molecular biologist and genetic engineer, known for his research on genetically modified foods and food nutritional talks about biotech in agriculture sector and more

What role will biotech play in the agricultural sector?

In a third world country like India, major contribution to economy is made by agriculture. A considerable loss in crop yield happens annually due to various enviromental stresses and pest/pathogen attack. Biotechnology has been used to develop improved and adapted crops with high yield, resistant to various biotic and abiotic stresses and improved nutritional value. It can certainly play an important role in overcoming the shortcomings of Indian agriculture and increase food security for the ever increasing population. The phenomenonal success of Bt cotton has clearly shown the need for GM technology to deal with problems faced by Indian agriculture sector

What kind of learnings can Agritech start-ups take to ensure disruption in agriculture? 

Firstly, agriculture should not be compared with the tech industry since the mode of operation in the two sectors is totally different. Here reliability is the key. Reliance on nature (clouds, winds, rainfall) matter the most. The people in farming need sufficient time to complete their task and they bank upon their crops or cattle because that’s their lifeline. So the Agritech start-ups should design automated products solely keeping the needs of farmers in focus. Secondly, educating the farmers about all the easy-to-use equipment is mandatory, which are necessary to deploy the technology in the agricultural lands. In case of any trouble, the after sales support should provide timely backup.  Thirdly, the startups should act as a bridge connecting the farmers with agricultural biotechnologists and the agronomists.  All the products designed by them should suit people at both the ends. Lastly, the startups should have tenacity, persistence and should be open to all outcomes. As agriculture is a unique domain with long timeframes, so the founding investors should be an amalgamation of visionaries and persistence. Thus huge productivity benefits can be delivered by the agritech startups and ensure disruption in agriculture. 

Do the designer crops (GM crops) have better possibilities for a produce than normal crops?
In the last one decade there has been discovery and characterization of genes and gene products of known function in model and economically important plants and the designer crops thus produced have multiple beneficial traits like: reduced anti-nutritional factors, enhanced tolerance to biotic and abiotic stress, increased nutritive value of food crops and enhanced fruit shelf life. So it can be clearly concluded that GM crops can enable the achievement of food security for present and future generations. GM crops have continued to expand every year and no adverse side effects have been documented even after extensive cultivation and widespread human consumption globally.

What is your opinion about the awareness of Indian farmers in this?
Indian agriculture industry is pretty complex with multiple layers of middlemen in every stratum. Farmers are still the much-exploited category in the chain of producers to retailers.  But they are gaining awareness gradually where the local startup companies are reaching out to them directly; they are getting access to the internet and mobile apps where they can read about various technologies (GM technology) utilized to improve crop yield, see the prices of commodities offered to them by various markets and startups. 

Farmers in many states of South India and North India are benefiting from the agri startups as they are getting better rates and consequently growing 2-3 more crops ultimately leading to more production and more income.  

Do you think Indian Agritech startups are imparting apt knowledge to farmers in this regards?
Technology is the backbone, which will help us achieve major success in agriculture as well.  Yes, the Agritech startups across India are doing a good job of imparting awareness and knowledge to the farmers and this is reflected in the increasing number of startup firms, which is more than 450 till date and this number is increasing by 25% annually. These startups have successfully educated the farmers about using technology to boost up their productivity, increase their incomes and provide them with better livelihood opportunities.

What can be done more to boost the sector? 
Basic parameters like population growth, rising income levels subsequently leading to increasing consumption and increasing exports largely favor growth in agriculture in our country. Much required at this stage is policy support from the government like increase in Minimum Support Price (MSP), increase in crop insurance support, introduction of various schemes and ‘yognas’ to facilitate farmers. Major initiatives should be taken to bolster easy credit to farmers, which will ensure increased agricultural growth. Main aim should be application of technology to lower challenges faced by farmers beginning with sowing, followed by irrigating, harvesting and ultimately selling at a proper price.  

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