Smart aquaculture could be an answer for malnourished India

Rajiv Theodore
Wed, 09-12-2020 04:00:20 PM ;

India is home to the largest undernourished (14.9 percent) population in the world and certainly some of this could be bridged by tapping into a large reservoir of malnourishment busting potential that exists today in the form of aquaculture. Fish topped as the largest contributors of non-vegetarian protein among Indians and as a single most source of non-vegetarian food. India plans to increase its share in global seafood trade from the present 4.1 per cent to 6.7 per cent by 2030 by increasing production, value addition and diversification. Globally the aquaculture industry has grown out of obscurity. Today, more than 50 percent of fish consumed comes from a growing aquaculture industry from a meagre 13 percent in 1990. Fish is a rich source of vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids and high-quality protein. It plays a particularly important role in the diets of billions of consumers in low- and middle-income countries.

Today in the era of back to back tech revolutions, the concept of smart agriculture has come into the forefront which promises among other things to wipe out hunger especially in the Asia-Pacific region. According to Transparency Market Research (TMR), the global smart agriculture market is expected to rise at a staggering 13.5 percent CAGR (compound annual growth rate) over the forecast tenure between 2017 and 2025. The market is expected to touch US$23.44 billion by the end of 2025 progressing from US$6.55 billion earned in 2016. Based on regional analysis, the demand for smart agriculture is increasing considerably in Asia Pacific. This is because some key countries in Asia Pacific such as China and India are largely involved in agricultural activities thus creating lucrative growth opportunities for this market. Fish farming or aquaculture is an integral part of smart agro market which also include– Precision Agriculture, Livestock Monitoring, Smart Greenhouse.

Globally the aquaculture industry has grown out of obscurity. Today, more than 50 percent of fish consumed comes from a growing aquaculture industry from a meagre 13 percent in 1990. Fish is a rich source of vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids and high-quality protein. It plays a particularly important role in the diets of billions of consumers in low- and middle-income countries. Throughout human history most of the fish people eat has been captured from oceans, rivers and lakes. But the total quantity of fish harvested from these sources peaked in the mid-1990s due to overfishing and environmental degradation. Demand for seafood has continued to increase since this time, as urbanization and average incomes have risen globally. Aquaculture is today filling this gap. Infact,  aquaculture became so popular in Andhra Pradesh that there were restrictions on converting paddy fields into fish ponds which were later eased. Following Andhra’s success in commercial aquaculture, other states like West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Odisha are promoting it as an alternative to crops.

A look at the aquaculture production scenarios in the country shows that there are still areas where there is plenty of room for improvements which could be ironed out by using smart agricultural techniques. In all three scenarios exist: fresh water aquaculture, brackish water aquaculture and marine aquaculture market in India:

Freshwater aquaculture –

The freshwater aquaculture production in India comprises about 2.36 million hectare of ponds and tanks and accounts for nearly 55 percent of the total fish production. Currently, only an estimated 40 percent of the available area is in use because of technical and market access issues. Additionally, freshwater aquaculture is undertaken in lakes, irrigation canals, reservoirs and paddy fields. It is often combined with the production of shrimps in traditional low-brackish water ponds. Aquaculture production is mainly of a low quality which requires low levels of inputs. More intensive high-quality aquaculture has received more attention in recent years, however.

The development of the aquaculture sector requires however a complete chain approach, since inputs such as seed, feed, technology, finance and market access are insufficiently available. Also, a required need for improved aeration systems, water filters, feed quality management and tailored to the Indian situation RAS (Recirculating aquaculture system) systems are mentioned.

The Seafood Trade Intelligence Portal indicates that Andhra Pradesh is big on freshwater aquaculture, but the production has been developed here. New development opportunities exist in West Bengal and Odisha for freshwater aquaculture. However, practices in this sector are still traditional or semi intensive. Currently, except for feed manufactures and providers of training, better business perspectives in these states exist in the shrimp sector.

Brackish water aquaculture

The majority of production takes place in specific ponds throughout the year. This is done in a traditional way (extensive) with ponds of 1.5 ha and bigger, such as in Kerala and West Bengal or a semi-intensive way with ponds below 0.5 ha, as in Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and Odisha. The latter production technique entails technical modifications and investment in fertilizers, pumps and construction. In traditional ponds different species (brackish and freshwater) are produced simultaneously and their growth rate is higher than in semi-intensive ponds. Often, farmers produce other products as well. 90% of the farmers in marine and brackish aquaculture own less than 2 ha and have difficulties obtaining finances for investments. The shrimp production is however highly profitable.

Marine Aquaculture

Thirdly, marine aquaculture, focusing on the production of mussels, oysters and seaweeds has experienced a recent increase in production. Nevertheless, the production, which mainly takes place in the states of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, is still very modest and is often based on traditional practices. With regard to marine aquaculture, opportunities exist in the cultivation of finfish and shellfish on a commercial scale. For this a cage-based aquaculture has to be introduced into the country. To cope with the Indian weather circumstance, appliances such as wave resistant floating cages can be introduced.

Smart Agro-Techniques

Finally, smart agro-techniques must be incorporated to boost production but on a sustainable basis. New research shows that aquaculture production will need to be more than double again between now and 2050 to meet the demands of a growing population especially in a country like India. However, doubling aquaculture production without further increasing the industry’s efficiency could lead to a doubling of environmental impacts. And unless the aquaculture industry is able to boost productivity, the limited availability of land, water, and feed may constrain its growth.

Infusion of latest technology can improve sustainability and efficiency of resource utilization in various aspects. It can also reduce labor cost, improve productivity, and increase the quality of aquatic products. Aquaculture has the potential to reduce waste discharge, recycle waste, and improve resource utilization as it can reduce feed use and provide better control of waste and water quality through big‐data analyses and instant adjustments. To realize green and sustainable ecological aquaculture energy savings by applying renewable energy facilities and saving water use through better (e.g., aquaponics) systems are some of the immediate solutions. Intelligent aquaculture can greatly improve the output, quality, and safety level of aquatic products and can comprehensively reduce the production and operation costs of aquatic products. For example, intelligent real‐time monitoring and management can monitor the health of the environment and fish. It can keep the fish in the best growth condition and improve the quality of the fish. Similarly, intelligent climate and aquaculture environmental information management can help to increase aquaculture volumes and reduce losses. Cutting edge technologies also include the application of AI  and robotics can help improve production efficiency.

Although aquaculture involves more and more technologies, it is still far from the level of other agro‐food industries. The advances in technologies such as Big Data, robotics, IoT, and simulation are increasingly applied during the production process. The core technology of intelligent aquaculture is the artificial intelligence technology platform, which integrates digitalization, industrialization, mechanization, big data information and so on. Many decisions of “intelligent aquaculture” are still based on experience rather than real data so far. Therefore, sustainable development of intelligent aquaculture model is necessary to integrate traditional aquaculture with intelligent technology, breeding technology, and information technology to realize automatic aquaculture production and information management.

Ultimately, eat fish that are low on the food chain– fish farming can ease pressure on marine ecosystems if farmed fish don’t need large amounts of wild fish in their diets. Consumers should therefore demand species that feed low on the food chain—“low-trophic” species such as tilapia, catfish, carp, and bivalve molluscs. In emerging economies, where consumption of low-trophic species is still dominant, emphasis should continue with these species even as billions of people enter the global middle class in coming decades. Since fish is a major source of nutrition for more than a billion-poor people in the developing world and India, growing aquaculture to meet the food and nutritional needs of these consumers will be essential.