This blog explores a few key insights that arose from the recently held International Conference, Managing Sustainable Transitions in Agriculture. The discussion centres on agritech, market dynamics, and sustainable agriculture, emphasizing the need for a holistic approach and adds perspectives on addressing challenges at the intersection of food, climate change, and agriculture in the coming year.
Around September last year, I received the invite mail seeking abstracts for 'Managing Sustainable Transitions in Agriculture: Newer Directions for Research and Civic Action' from my Yoga mentor. It was the first clue that this was not going to be a run-of-the-mill conference. I immediately signed up and ferreted out an abstract based on my ongoing praxis-oriented study on building alternative agricultural markets and marketplaces1. Soon after I landed at IRMA campus, the very first session I attended was Thomson Kaleekal’s presentation on “Reforming Traditional Socio-Technical Barriers to Promote Transition of Coastal Agro-Ecological Systems in Kerala”.
I felt pretty much at home!
I was pleasantly surprised to participate a conference where interdisciplinary approach was the norm (and not an outlier). It felt reassuring to be in the company of serious change makers of bottom-up and top-down stripes who were not content to perpetuate fragments, invent corners where we could feel conceptually secure and emotionally safe about the broken state of our food and agriculture systems.
Here was a motley group of doers and thinkers that was aware of the onerous task ahead and wasn’t pussyfooting around to remedy the complicated situation with the most superficial of patched-together cures. The comments and Q&A which followed (“What does scale really mean in an agroecological context”) the presentations were music to my ears (“Carbohydrate is a colonial construct”), even when they were long-winded and went all the way back to Marx.
It didn’t take long to dust off my cobwebbed ideas of academic seminars being boring, bereft of vibrant energy. In fact, in an eclectic gathering of development professionals, sociologists, civil society professionals, activists, academics and experts, the intensity of the collective was such that moderators had to often inject mirth to cool things down.
The Agritech Question - Good, Bad or Ugly?
As I started engaging in conversations with the group, given my agritech and agribusiness background, I was reminded of the classic scene from Mani Ratnam-Kamal Hassan’s magnum opus “Nayakan”, horribly remade in Hindi as “Dayavan”. In one of the most poignant scenes of the movie, Kamal Hassan, who plays the Godfather Don Corleone equivalent, faces his moral conscience in the voice of his innocent grandson, who asks him, "Are you Good Or Bad?"
At one level, the inherent negative bias civil society organizations have towards agribusiness and agritech is understandable. Given how deeply civil society organizations have worked on the ground to bring grassroots change, they have their valid reasons to be skeptical towards extractive agribusiness and agritech players operating in an age of technopoly.
But if we are serious about managing sustainable transitions in agriculture, how can we leave the “market” away from the picture? Of course, markets are not a solution to every problem faced in a domain like agriculture where changes take decades to manifest. But, how will we find out the relevant role of markets and private sector when we continue to play by age-old, bollywood tropes of “evil” baniya and propagate old, viral ideas of, in the eloquent words of Arvind Subramanian, “2A variant of stigmatized capitalism”?
Nachiket Udupa’s presentation at the panel threw precious light into this. When data has more controlling than serving instincts, how can we digitalize smallholder farming ecosystems and upturn power structures of data colonialism? How do we create a scalable business model for agroecology and build markets that value the nutrient density of the produce? Given how women lost their decision-making roles with the advent of Green Revolution, can women reclaim their decision-making contexts with the advent of feminisation of agricultural mechanisation? Can unbranding with trust-based local markets coexist simultaneously with branding playbooks that help farmers ambitiously striving to serve export markets?
Sabarmateeji’s panel address showed us the way forward: Can we see the unseen, report the unreported and address the unaddressed?
We have never dared to embrace the whole of food and agriculture systems in its entirety for a good reason: It is extremely difficult to dialogue when our underlying beliefs and assumptions are challenged. Had it not been for Climate Change, each of us working in food and agriculture could have had our safe little nooks and niches when we naively attempted to break the wholeness of our food and agriculture systems into bite-size bits.
Embracing wholeness as a practicality
Whether you call it Complexity Sciences or Systems thinking, such pursuits today can no longer afford to be the pet preoccupation of high-minded academics and rarified thinkers sitting in ivory towers, far away from the messy chaotic domains of markets and marketplaces. It has to be practiced in the here and now where the rubber meets the road. Let’s look around and be honest. It’s an ugly chaos we have created. Today, our predicament is such that we have now started coining new words to describe this ugly chaos.
Whether we call it “polycrisis” (Adam Tooze) or “omnicrisis” (Adam Elkus) or “permacrisis” (John Robb) or “permaweird” (Venkatesh Rao), it is important to note that our collective responses of sustainable transitions to grow muscles of resilience need to manifest locally, stemming from first principles, fractal enough for change makers to organize into swarms and orchestrate movements, either as radical agritech ventures or farmer-conscious agribusiness ventures or planet-conscious social businesses or otherwise.
As vitally committed human beings concerned about the quality of life we have created for ourselves and creating for the next generations, we must penetrate to the source, the roots of chaos. Is not the source of the collective misery of our broken food and agriculture systems that neither serves us, farmers and consumers, nor the planet the acceptance of a very narrow, superficial view of the totality? Are not the roots of our chaos in our ignorance, denial of wholeness?
As we embark on a new gregorian year, I am hopeful that we will find a way to navigate through these difficult challenges that lie ahead for those of us working in the intersection of food, climate change and agriculture.
Venky Ramachandran is an independent Agritech Analyst, Consultant and Researcher. He works with agritech startup founders, investors, agribusinesses, and development organisations across India, Europe and Central America. He writes at https://www.agribizmatters.com/