Sustainability in Agriculture is a Double-Edged Sword

Ankit Alok Bagaria, Co-founder of Loopworm, an Agri-Tech startup, tells Education Post’s Prabhav Anand that the relationship between technology and agriculture in India reveals a variety of experiences, challenges, and strategic insights. “The moment money starts flowing into sustainability, people will get involved.”

Question QWhat inspired you to enter Agri-Tech and how have your past experiences shaped your approach to tackling agriculture challenges through Loopworm?

My inspiration to enter Agri-Tech was primarily due to food security. I observed that India, being an agrarian country, produces a lot of agricultural commodities but doesn’t process them much. We have abundant raw materials, land, labor, and electricity, which are the four cost components for any manufacturing process. This motivated me to start something on the manufacturing side where we can process a bio-resource into different bio-molecules and extract value from it for different industries as alternative ingredients.

I’m not much into software solutions. I believe in building something tangible, producing more ingredients, and serving society. That was my calling for Agri-Tech. At Loopworm, we solve two problems. First is the organic waste management issue. India has almost 52 percent of food waste, and the insects that we farm consume these wastes. We process farmed insects because we don’t want to disrupt nature or disturb the life cycle. These insects are rich in proteins, fats, and bio-molecules. We extract high-quality proteins, fats, and different types of biomolecules from them and use them in different industries. We primarily target the animal feed industry because there’s a major problem when it comes to arable land availability, portable water, and wild marine life. We might as well use nature’s limited availability for humans and feed our animals something else. That’s where the insects come into the picture. All this depends upon sustainability.

Question Q

From your perspective, what are the most significant trends currently shaping the Agri-Tech industry globally, and how might they influence agriculture practices in India?

So, globally, the trends in Agri-Tech vary based on the country’s development status. Developed economies are striving for productivity, yield, and labor reduction. They’re adopting practices like precision agriculture to get more from less. They’re also trying to reduce import dependencies by adopting technologies like hydroponics, indoor farming, and soil-less cultivation. In contrast, developing countries like India are trying to improve yield and productivity but face challenges due to cost sensitivity and lack of education among those involved in agricultural activities. The focus here is on developing low-cost solutions and machinery to assist farmers. Regulations are not stringent, allowing farmers to use a variety of chemical and non-chemical products.

However, the market for organic food is limited due to its higher cost. Underdeveloped countries are still figuring out farming methods and trying to utilize their natural resources effectively. These trends significantly influence agricultural practices in India, balancing between improving productivity and managing costs. In Africa, for example, there’s a vast wealth of underutilized natural resources. The lack of technologies, particularly survey technologies, is a significant issue. Technology comes with a cost, and affordability often dictates accessibility. For instance, German machinery might be expensive for us, but not for Germans due to local production and supply. Similarly, machinery supplied by India works for us, but certain African countries might find Indian machinery expensive and inaccessible. Therefore, the question of adopting technology often boils down to accessibility due to affordability.

Question Q

How do you perceive the role of government initiatives in supporting and promoting Agri-Tech advancements in India? Are there specific policies you believe could further catalyze growth in this sector?

The government plays a crucial role in supporting and promoting Agri-Tech advancements in India. As our economy grows, the government’s role becomes even more important. Various ministries are coming together to promote value addition in Agri-Tech. The transport ministry is crucial for improving cold storage and transportation to avoid wastage during transit. One major issue the government is trying to solve is the preservation of farm produce. A lot of farm produce gets wasted at the farm gate before it reaches the consumer. The government is working to preserve what we produce, add value to it, and increase productivity and yield. Regarding policies, India has been slow in adopting or building new technologies. For example, there has been resistance against genetics, which has affected our productivity and yield. There are no set policies for insect farming for other species, although we have received a small grant from the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare.

Until there are regulations, it remains a gray zone, and funding doesn’t come in. Unconventional farming techniques like seaweed farming, algae farming, and pearl farming can help the Indian population, especially marginalized farmers with limited land holdings. These unconventional farming methods can make the best use of their limited land. India needs to lead in certain areas due to our abundant natural resources. We have the potential to become global suppliers for many products. However, due to policy delays, funding and technology implementation are lagging. The issue is not a lack of governance, but rather a lack of understanding. People who understand genetics should discuss its pros and cons, rather than those without scientific knowledge. Similarly, those who understand high-tech precision agriculture and farming techniques need to be involved in the system. People with generic information, especially about agricultural statistics, may not understand technology. Without understanding, it’s challenging to support or regulate technology. It often takes us almost a decade to start something in India after it has been developed worldwide. This is an area the government can look into. However, it’s important to note that they are already working on it.

Question Q

Sustainability is a key focus in modern agriculture. How can Agri-Tech contribute to sustainable farming practices, and what challenges do we need to overcome to achieve widespread adoption of eco-friendly technologies?

Basically, sustainability in agriculture is a double-edged sword. Sustainable practices can lead to increased costs or decreased productivity. While it improves the quality of the produce, the question is whether consumers are willing to pay more for it. Sustainability needs to be consumer-driven. If consumers value sustainable products, then sustainability can become mainstream. However, it’s a chicken-and-egg problem. Consumers want the price of sustainable products to go down before they buy, and producers want the price to go up before they produce. This dilemma needs to be resolved for the widespread adoption of sustainable practices. Drawing a parallel with the IIT system, where 90 percent of IITians go into software jobs for better pay and lifestyle, the same principle applies to sustainability. The moment money starts flowing into sustainability, people will get involved. Therefore, financial incentives play a crucial role in promoting sustainable farming practices.

Question Q

How can we enhance education and awareness among farmers about the benefits and applications of Agri-Tech?

Enhancing education and awareness among farmers about Agri-Tech requires a multi-pronged approach. Every village has an early adopter farmer who is often a risk-taker, educated, or both. Other farmers look up to them, so they can play a crucial role in spreading awareness. Understanding the farmer’s mindset is essential. For a farmer, the focus is on yield, productivity, and reducing losses rather than the quality of the produce. This mindset needs to be addressed first. If a farmer is doing contract farming, the company controls the quality, and the farmer’s say is limited. There are many people studying agriculture engineering, veterinary sciences, and BSC, MSC agriculture. We have dedicated IARI, and ICAR colleges for different types of agricultural produce. However, the opportunities are limited. People developing solutions need to understand the farmer’s mindset. For the farmer, cost matters more than the productivity of the feed. It’s about the productivity that you get per unit cost. The mentality in most pockets is to get enhanced productivity at the same cost. This becomes a chicken-egg problem. Someone needs to take a hit first, prove it to them, and not just with lab scale results or research papers.

Question Q

Agriculture is often deeply rooted in traditional practices. How can the industry and farmers adapt to the rapid technological changes brought about by Agri-Tech without compromising the essence of traditional farming wisdom?

I’d say get a farmer’s son to do it. Because agriculture is indeed deeply rooted in traditional practices. Adapting to the rapid technological changes brought about by Agri-Tech without compromising the essence of traditional farming wisdom requires a bridge between traditional farming and scientific agriculture. This bridge could be a farmer’s son or daughter who has become a scientist. Farmers trust their community, and people who have studied and come from farming backgrounds have a unique mindset. They are willing to compromise on profitability sometimes and are cautious about launching a product unless they’re 120 percent sure. This contrasts with most commercial practices where 80 percent assurance works. A person from a farming background will never risk a farmer. This is where trust gets established, and practices change. Therefore, we need farmer’s sons and daughters to drive this change.

Question Q

What advice do you have for Agri-Tech entrepreneurs? What lessons have you learned from Loopworm’s journey that would be valuable for others in Agri-Tech startups?

For Agri-Tech entrepreneurs, my advice is to first do primary research. Understand all your stakeholders, including farmers, suppliers, distributors, logistic providers, and sellers. Go to the field, and understand the problem statement firsthand. This will help you develop better business decisions and operational models. And second is that, don’t rush for money early. Give ample time for proof of concept and minimum viable product development in AgriTech. You cannot target a software industry growth or funding cycle in an AgriTech or life sciences space. One of our crucial learnings from Loopworm was not to rush towards equity investments early on. Our first equity investment came in three years after we started our startup. Until then, we were operating with the help of government grants. Slowly and steadily develop your proof of concept, master your pilot facility, stabilize everything, get that confidence, and then get the money to scale it. Don’t rush into things.


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