Delivering on the promise of a sustainable world

Parul Soni, Founder and Global Managing Partner, Thinkthrough Consulting.

By Parul Soni, Founder and Global Managing Partner, Thinkthrough Consulting

Steady depletion of the environment has been a global concern for the past few decades and has precipitated a climate emergency. This is especially true for countries like India, where the sheer size of the population increases the magnitude of the challenges of balancing development and ecology.

As the world’s second-most populous country and a powerhouse economy, India has multi-dimensional challenges that lead to poor environmental outcomes. Considering that fulfilling a need as fundamental as food is the duty of the state and agriculture is a well-known source of pollution, fostering the practice of sustainable agriculture will remain critical in meeting the sustained demand for nutrition while adapting to the climatic changes and securing the livelihood of farmers who make up about 43% of income-generating Indians.

By the same criterion of population, India is also at risk of becoming the junkpile capital of the world unless well-thought-out and calibrated measures are taken to establish the processes to pivot it into a circular economy. It is intriguing to see that technologies like plastics or pesticides that were once indicators of development and were deemed necessary for a better life have turned into the major contributors to pollution, affecting all aspects of human life.

There is, however, little doubt that in the era of the fourth industrial revolution, technology will play a vital role in mitigating the socio-economic concerns caused by environmental degradation. Technology has to be the mainstay of this transition, whether to fill the gaps or promote innovation.

SUSTAINABLE AGRI, NUTRITION AND INCOME SECURITY

India has traditionally been an agricultural country and is among the top 10 agri-produce exporters, providing a fairly large amount of rice, cotton, soya beans, and meat to the world. This ensures nutrition security globally and income generation for farmers locally. However, agriculture is threatened by the changing climatic patterns like the untimely rainfall and rise in sea level that increases the challenges of farmers, while increasing the demand for climate-resilient seeds.

Agriculture is an input-intensive activity where the use of water for irrigation, fertilisers and pesticides, farm machinery, and tilling add to the adverse environmental impact. Besides, it is also an established source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

A report by the International Energy Agency states that India emitted 2,299 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) in 2018, contributing about 7% of the global emissions. Agriculture and livestock contributed over 18% or more than 400 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. Making agriculture sustainable will encompass using fewer chemicals and reducing the intensity of natural resources like water and smart, frontier technologies like the internet of things (IoT).

IoT in farming enables remote monitoring of farm conditions and infrastructure, thereby saving time and labour on routine activities. It also helps transform information into data and improve decision-making by analysing them. It also generates faster and quicker insights from data across the value chain and allows farmers to respond to market needs. Besides, IoT can help improve efficiency in food production by reducing wastage and ensuring safe and sustainable food through better traceability, improving farmers’ overall income.

According to an IBM estimate, IoT may help farmers increase food production by 70% by 2050. Apart from better pest management and weather forecasting, IoT, with the help of sensors, could save up to 50 billion gallons of water every year by optimising water usage.

IoT can be used for a host of other agricultural activities as well.

Access to advanced technologies to mitigate environmental concerns is almost always affected by the lack of know-how and funds and user scepticism.

Irrigation and water quality management: IoT can be critical in optimising water use for irrigation in farming and related activities. The four factors that can nudge farmers to adopt smart irrigation systems include integration of real-time weather forecast data, enabling synchronisation of the systems with moisture sensors installed in the farm, control of the system from anywhere in the world, and reducing farmer’s input cost while helping to conserve limited water resources.

When combined with sensor nodes powered with wireless communication, it can help monitor the water quality. Such a system can measure the physical and chemical parameters of the water, such as temperature, pH, turbidity, conductivity, and dissolved oxygen. The data can be viewed on Internet-powered devices using cloud services.

Integrated pest management: Though agrochemical use by Indian farmers is far less than the global average, most farmers are unaware of which fertiliser or pesticide to use for which crop and at what stage. This often leads to problems like residue or contamination of water bodies. While the government has proposed methods like Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF), the uptake across India has been sporadic. Hence, adopting integrated pest management (IPM), a practical and environmentally sensitive approach to pest management that relies on the controlled use of pesticides and fertilisers, becomes imperative.

Integrated pest management can help increase the quality of the crop even as it reduces the input cost for farmers. However, implementing integrated pest management requires real-time information on pest infestation. IoT infrastructure can play an essential role by collecting disease and insect pest information using sensor nodes and processing the data for enabling action. Even in cases where farmers are not comfortable handling devices on the system, local Krishi Vigyan Kendra (KVKs) can be connected on the platform to inform farmers about the pest infestation status of their farms and guide them about the type and of pesticides they need to use.

Soil quality monitoring: The quality and fertility of soil are dependent on factors such as soil temperature, soil moisture, and microbial diversity. However, seemingly unrelated factors such as air temperature may also impact the quality and fertility of the soil.

Sensors connected to IoT systems can monitor the parameters and help farmers make informed decisions on sowing the seeds, use of irrigation, or harvesting the crop, thereby reducing manual effort and water usage, thus controlling cost and environmental impact. They are also easy to install and have low maintenance. IoT systems can be used to back up data securely, reviewing historical or instant data to track trends or predict irrigation needs and set up reminders. It also makes overwatering or underwatering of crops less likely and may arrest groundwater depletion by promoting water conservation.

While IoT can enable a 70% increase in food production by 2050, sensors can help save up to 50 billion gallons of water annually by optimising agri water usage.

Advanced technologies for sustainable agriculture: Tractors are one of the best friends a farmer can have. It reduces the effort to prepare the ground for sowing. However, a tractor can weigh anything between 1700-2600 kg and exert intense pressure on the soil. This may lead to soil compaction, affecting its ability to hold water and make water and nutrients available to the plant.

Deploying small robots instead of tractors can prevent soil exposure to this pressure and help farmers better care for their crops. These robots can be fitted with geotagging-enabled cameras, equipment for precise broadcasting of pesticides, and planting saplings.

Adopting genome editing can also help better practice sustainability in agriculture. Genetic modification of select crops, e.g., fruits, can have twin benefits of saving them from being plucked too raw and using chemical ripening agents for making them consumable and preventing them from rotting naturally.

According to the United Nations, Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimate, more than 40% of food produced in India is wasted, costing the country an estimated $14 Billion every year. Genome editing can help fruits like bananas, which releases ethylene gas upon ripening that leads to the ripening of other bananas in the proximity, to produce less of the plant hormone and remain healthy looking without any brown patches. A transparent and robust governance framework is necessary before implementing such measures due to the volatile public sentiment towards GM crops and genome editing.

MANAGE WASTE FOR BETTER ENVIRONMENT, ECONOMY

It is not startling to realise that India is home to 17.7% of the world population and, as per a 2016 estimate, generates more than one-tenth of global waste. India produces an estimated 277 million tonnes of municipal solid waste every year, of which 77% is disposed in the open or ends up in landfills, 18% is made compost, and 5% is recycled.

Inefficient management of solid municipal waste and poor implementation of existing regulations have made it a major source of air and water pollution in India. New-age, smart technologies can help integrate waste management, monitor collection and disposal, and minimise the environmental impact of waste mismanagement.

Integrated waste management systems, powered by Programmable Logic Controller (PLC) and Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) monitoring systems, can monitor automatically and operate from a centralised control station to ensure efficiency and require minimum manual intervention, reducing the margin of error. These smart technologies can be used in multiple ways.

Waste segregation: Despite several attempts, instilling a culture of segregated waste disposal remains a dream in India. Technology can help improve the situation with innovations like smart bins. These sensor-powered, pre-programmed bins can enforce waste segregation and trigger a warning when the wrong type of waste is dumped in it. The bins may also come with interactive screens to guide users on the next steps to safely dispose of that type of waste. Improving waste segregation at the source is at the heart of efficient management and will play a vital role in optimising the whole chain.

Waste collection: Currently, trucks carrying dumpsters to landfills are powered by fossil fuel, particularly diesel. This makes the waste disposal process double jeopardy. While landfills themselves are a source of pollution, emissions from the trucks add to the pollutants in the air. Deploying a fleet management technology, common in the logistics sector, can optimise the waste collection step in the chain.

Fleet management technologies use a network of sensors connected through GPS to create and analyse data to identify the best route for the fleet or individual vehicles, as required. This will help trucks avoid traffic and reduce emissions and enable maximum trash collection in less time. Besides, using vacuum suction to empty garbage bins through a network of underground pneumatic tubes can help in increasing the speed of waste collection and disposal.

Advanced collection and disposal technologies: Advanced economies have made a substantial effort to improve their waste management measures, some of which may also prove useful for India. One such innovation is a solar-powered waste compactor. This smart device registers the bin’s fill level in real-time and activates automatic waste compaction. The compactor-bin has effectively increased a normal trash bin’s capacity by up to 5-8 times.

Similar technology is an ultrasonic trash can sensor that regularly informs the user on how full the container is and helps reduce the cost of overfilling a skip. Another similar intervention is an image-based trash can sensor connected through GPS and automatically monitors both fullness and contents. The sensor also determines which containers need service each day, schedules routes, and allocates jobs to drivers.

New-age, smart technologies can help integrate waste management, monitor collection, and disposal, and minimise the environmental impact. 

Waste-to-energy generation: This is a well-known technology for recycling residual waste that uses combustion to provide heat and power and reduces the speed of landfills that dot the fringes of all metropolitan and smaller cities in India. Though waste-to-energy has been around for some time, the uptake has remained a challenge. There is little doubt that increasing the uptake of this technology will substantially reduce waste disposal to landfills and generate clean, reliable energy from a renewable fuel source, reducing dependence on fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions. However, the technology faces hurdles in India due to various operational and design problems, lack of segregation of waste at source being the primary one.

PREVENTION IS BETTER THAN CURE

The prevailing discourse on environment-friendly technology often overlooks their hidden harms. Besides, most of these technologies are capital-intensive. While COVID-19 has pushed the world to think about the environment with commitment, harnessing only capital-intensive solutions can cause ‘greenflation’ and affect the overall productivity and growth of the country.

For low-and-middle-income countries in Asia, like India, access to advanced technologies to mitigate environmental concerns is almost always affected by the user’s lack of know-how, adequate funds, and scepticism. These can be addressed by focusing on easy-to-use and cost-effective technologies, the right policy and regulatory interventions, and their implementation to promote the adoption of technological solutions. However, there is no better way to save the planet than to prevent damage when it comes to environmental challenges.

Interestingly, though sustainable agriculture and waste management are India’s bigger trouble, they overlap when it comes to food waste. Therefore, in addition to sourcing or developing technologies to address the environmental challenges at hand, it is equally urgent to create awareness about the pitfalls of irresponsible consumption and nudge for behavioural change in consumers.


KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • Agriculture is an input-intensive activity where the use of water for irrigation, fertilisers and pesticides, and farm machinery can add to the adverse environmental impact.
  • Making agriculture sustainable will encompass using fewer chemicals and reducing the intensity of natural resources like water and technologies like the IoT.
  • India produces over 277 million tonnes of municipal solid waste every year, of which 77% is disposed of in the open, 18% is made compost, and 5% is recycled.
  • New-age, smart technologies can help integrate waste management, monitor collection and disposal, and minimise the environmental impact of waste mismanagement.

Technology can play a vital role in making agriculture more environment-friendly and waste management greener and more efficient.

Parul Soni, Founder and Global Managing Partner, Thinkthrough Consulting.
Parul Soni, Founder and Global Managing Partner, Thinkthrough Consulting.