I have my plant doctor in my pocket.
That’s how I think about my mobile phone, ever since I discovered an app that harnesses the power of artificial intelligence. It helped me solve a confusing problem.
My experience shows a new way that cutting-edge technology has transformed agriculture here in India and around the world. I predict that within two years, just about every Indian farmer will rely on artificial intelligence for better crop care and as a crop monitoring system.
One of the things I’ve learned as a farmer is that plants don’t talk but they do try to communicate—and last summer, I noticed that several of my lentils (Blackgram) had developed leathery leaves. I hadn’t seen this before. I simply didn’t know what my plants were trying to tell me.
I asked several people for advice. Everybody had a different opinion. One thought the lentils wanted more water. Another guessed that they needed to draw more nutrients from the soil. A third suggested that the shrunken leaves were just a varietal genetic characteristic and probably nothing to worry about.
I didn’t know what to do.
Around that time, I read about Plantix, a mobile-phone app that diagnoses plant diseases. I downloaded the app, took a photo of the damaged plant, and uploaded the image. Within seconds, I had my answer: leaf-crinkle virus, spread by aphids.
Farmers always have struggled to fight disease, of course. Bacteria, fungi, and viruses target our crops. They travel by wind, water, and insect pests. We do our best to defend our plants, but we control only our own fields. Neighbors seed and sow different crops on different dates. This diversity can help diseases spread. This is especially true in an agrarian nation like India, where many farmers work on small and fragmented landholdings.
The Green Revolution of the 20th century improved education on disease prevention, especially through the creation of the extension offices of agricultural departments, whose staff took new techniques into the field and introduced them to farmers.
Yet there’s only so much overworked extension staff can do. In some Indian states, there’s just a single extension staffer for every 2,000 farmers. Their ability to look at damaged leaves in the field on short notice is limited.
A generation ago, farmers in my position—wondering about a new disease and not knowing what to do—could take samples to a nearby research station. Yet this consumes time and resources. By the time we reached the station in our two-wheeler or in public transportation the plant sample would have dried and the officers at the station may not recognize the problem. Sending samples by post can be no better. Conversations by phone can be helpful but oral descriptions may be faulty. The ability to send photographs to experts by mobile phones has helped, but even with this tool, staff remain overworked and sometimes lack the precise knowledge it takes to diagnose a particular disease.
That’s why the artificial intelligence of Plantix is such a revelation. It can examine an image, identify a disease, and recommend a crop-specific course of action for that individual farmer almost instantly. It can feel like magic, but it’s really science and technology at work.
When I learned that aphids had infected my lentils with leaf-crinkle virus, I also learned that there’s no cure for this disease. Fortunately, good pest management can contain the problem—and I was able to protect my harvest. As a result, my lentil production boomed: I went from growing 150 kg of Blackgram per acre to growing 800 kg per acre.
Other apps address different matters. The Wadhwani Foundation has an app specifically for cotton growers. ConserWater improves irrigation methods and the delivery of nutrients. The state of Tamil Nadu offers Uzhavan, which offers information on markets, insurance, and weather.
The best news about artificial intelligence is that it keeps getting smarter: The more we use it, the more it learns. Every time a farmer takes a good photo and uploads it, that information strengthens the database which is the basic requirement of any AI-based app. With every passing season, it will become better at what it does, which means that farmers will become better at what we do.
This is the future of farming in India: More food for everyone thanks to a plant doctor in every pocket.
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