Industries in Depth

How next-gen technology in agriculture can make food safer in India

food safety quality rice lentils wholesale market Delhi India

The COVID-19 pandemic inadvertently put a spotlight on the importance of monitoring and addressing food safety issues, which were previously common in the value chain. Image: REUTERS/Amit Dave

Taranjeet Bhamra
Co-Founder, AgNext
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  • Food adulteration in India is a persistent problem.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic inadvertently put a spotlight on the importance of monitoring and addressing food safety issues, which were previously common in the value chain.
  • Many agribusinesses and agritech firms are taking advantage of a diverse set of disruptive technologies to ensure food quality during the production, procurement, storage and trade of agri-commodities.

One in every five foods (grains, milk, pulses, spices and oil seeds) in India is adulterated. Adulterated food is made impure by the addition of an inferior substance, especially to prepare for sale by substituting more valuable ingredients for less valuable ones. The same report by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) suggests the percentage of adulterated food has grown from 12.8% in 2011-12 to 28% in 2018-19.

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In another problematic report in 2013 by Food Sentry, India was found to be the leading food violator in the world: a total of 3,400 food samples were collected from 117 countries, and 11.1% of samples from India were identified as adulterated.

Pandemic and its impact on food safety in India

The inadequate implementation of public safety laws and health regulations is an alarming source of concern for all citizens, in particular with regard to food safety and quality. India’s Supreme Court has acknowledged this and has refused to entertain any pre-bail pleas pertaining to food alteration cases as they endanger not only individuals but society at large.

The COVID-19 pandemic has inadvertently put a spotlight on the importance of monitoring and addressing food safety issues which were previously common in the value chain. The pandemic has seemingly ushered in a new age of scientific innovation and progress in the field of agritech (agricultural technology).

The rising value of India's agricultural production and food safety issues are becoming a growing concern.
The rising value of India's agricultural production and food safety issues are becoming a growing concern. Image: Our World in Data

With national lockdowns and restrictions, there was a severe shortage of essential commodities such as food and medicine and a new perspective on food security, food safety, and other food-related issues emerged. There was a rise in consumer demand for food, an increase in food prices, trade restrictions, the closure of food production facilities and pressure on overworked staff who might be exposed to the virus.

When it comes to food production, transportation, and consumption, these inescapable pandemic effects have influenced future research and policies pertaining to food safety and security. Focus invariably shifted to the urgent need to resolve food monitoring and safety issues through the incorporation of emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT), molecular science and computer vision. Many agribusinesses and agritech firms are taking advantage of a diverse set of disruptive technologies to ensure food quality during the production, procurement, storage and trade of agri-commodities such as milk, tea, grains and spices.

The swift adoption of deep-tech solutions throughout the nation is guiding India's agricultural revolution, or agriculture 4.0. Although in an early phase, the agritech space has gradually secured the attention of visionary entrepreneurs, investors, businesses, governments and, most important of all, farmers. Between 2017 and 2020, more than $1 billion dollars of funding was invested in the Indian agritech sector and the market is estimated to be worth $30-$35 billion by 2025. Alongside the emerging technologies driving innovation, the agritech sector is also expected to redefine and reinvigorate India’s traditional agricultural landscape.

The GDP contribution of the agriculture sector and food safety in India can be boosted with the help of deep-tech.
The GDP contribution of the agriculture sector and food safety in India can be boosted with the help of deep-tech. Image: Our World in Data

Bridging the gaps with deep-tech

More than 50% of India’s population is directly dependent on agriculture for sustenance. Unfortunately, this core sector generates only 20% of the national GDP. This considerable efficiency gap indicates numerous productivity losses that have accumulated over time across agri-value chains owing to persistent structural and operational challenges. As a result, profitability losses are caused by low farm incomes and the diminishing role of agriculture as a national economic engine over time.

Technology can aid in turning this around by eliminating productivity and profitability losses in food value chains and reducing agrarian concerns by removing manual errors and providing a fully integrated, digital model. Taking advantage of the latest technologies, such as AI and machine learning, can provide digital, rapid and accurate quality testing of food that eliminates food wastage and provides 100% traceability.

Understandably, it is now critical to guide a vibrant shift in agricultural operations by shifting away from traditional legacy structures and toward technology-driven solutions. Agritech startups must use the power of cutting-edge technologies like data analytics, AI, machine learning (ML) and the IoT to stimulate a digital and automated agritech landscape. This will prove instrumental in resolving countless challenges across traditional agriculture value chains by creating a market potential of a whopping $24 billion and is waiting to be tapped.

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The pandemic has shown how important it is to create infrastructure and systems for food safety that are effective at addressing the post-harvest agriculture supply chain’s ongoing problems with food quality assessment. Simultaneously, consumer demand for high-quality foods free from harmful adulterants and chemicals is also increasing.

In response, leading agritech companies are deploying a wide range of AI-based, rapid food quality assessment technologies that can be deployed at every step of the agriculture supply chain, successfully addressing the aforementioned pain points in an agile, holistic and transparent manner. These emergent enterprises are shaking up the industry by building innovative and rapid-testing technologies that can scan and analyse multiple commodities in a matter of seconds. These companies are delivering a desirable blend of trust, speed and transparency across agriculture value chains by deploying high-duty, next-generation, cloud-based, SaaS platforms and tech frameworks to help agribusinesses guarantee food safety from farm to fork.

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Industries in DepthFood and WaterNature and Biodiversity
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