The blog discusses how the MST Conference 2023 turned into a space for collaboration and knowledge co-creation through the participation of veteran farmers, young and senior academics, as well as civil society organisations. It also reflects on the role of technology that emerged out of the discussions at the conference, and what it teaches us about transcending binaries.
In my second year of pursuing an MPhil in Political Science from the University of Delhi, my supervisor, Prof. Madhulika Banerjee recommended that I attend a conference on agroecology being held in Anand, since my thesis explores agroecological interventions in the country. The conference ‘Managing Sustainable Transitions in Agriculture: Newer Directions for Research and Civic Action’ was held over three days from 16th-18th November, 2023. Nearly 50 presentations were distributed into eight themes, each dealing with an aspect of sustainable transition in agriculture.
Reaching Anand on 15th November, I was struck by the beautiful campus and warm hospitality. Using the day to go through the list of presentations, I picked the ones that aligned with my interest since there were parallel sessions. The following three days were eye opening for me, being able to learn from the presenters as well as stalwarts who have been working in this sector for a few decades! The inaugural session particularly moved me. Dr. A R Vasavi drew our attention to the need to emphasise multiple ways of doing agriculture even as we transition to sustainable models. Although certain broad principles have been chalked out, by definition, agroecology should mean agriculture that is centred around the local ecosystem, and that can never be a singular model. She proceeded to flag three emergencies that agriculture must engage with- inequality, erosion of democracy, and climate change. Dr Vasavi lucidly explained how agricultural policy can and must take into account widening wealth gap in the country, unequal access to resources as well as newer forms of knowledge, and representation of all classes of farmers.
It was a reminder of the political dimensions of our research, and how it can influence larger systemic changes. Speaking of newer paradigms, Shri Bharat Bhushan Tyagi expressed his hopes regarding the institutionalisation of agroecology and greater possibilities with the collaboration among farmers, academics, and the civil society. He called for harmony in our understanding of agroecology but diversity in our ways of learning and doing. Such diversity reflected throughout the conference that became a site of knowledge co-creation through consensus and contentions.
Participation and representation
The first thing that stood out to me was the range of participation at the conference. Civil society organisations and academics alike contributed to interdisciplinary discussions, bringing synergy among various topics. For instance, while academics highlighted the apprehensions of scaling in agroecology, CSOs showed why the potential for scaling is an important part of fundraising. Marketing experts and economists explained the complexities of branding, premium prices, and consumer preferences and how they impact agriculture. A panel discussion on gender discussed how sustainable transitions can ensure more recognition to women as farmers. Apart from the presentations, IRMA had also partnered with a local Farmers Producer Organisation (FPO) that was led by women. They were responsible for catering and provided us with delicious millet based and other varieties of food grown organically.
The role of technology
Among all the different discussions distributed into eight themes, the topic that I ended up reflecting most on was the role of technology in sustainable transitions because of the diverse perspectives that emerged. With the onset of climate change and a scramble for tangible solutions, Agritech companies are increasingly venturing into facilitating sustainable transitions by providing tech-based services to farmers at each point of the production process. However, the history of technocentric interventions in agriculture calls one to be cautious about short term technological fixes. The need for a critical perspective also stems from the historically close interdependencies between corporate interests and technoscience interventions.
Perhaps the most important question that needs to be asked is what happens to the farmer’s knowledge of agriculture with the introduction of tech- based solutions. One of the fundamental claims of agroecology is that knowledge of agriculture should be freely held and exchanged within communities. Many issues in conventional agriculture can be traced back to commodification of knowledge- the process by which knowledge is transformed into a commodity for the purposes of exchange in a market. Commodification not only extends to the factors of production but also to our ways of responding to the climate crisis- conducting cost benefit analysis, measuring carbon credits and so on. Commodifying knowledge through patents, paid extension services and consultancies alienates the farmer from the process of production. They also impede other more holistic solutions to the climate crisis. Exchanging knowledge of seeds and other agricultural operations is crucial to bringing in sustainable transitions.
The above argument also pushes us to think about ‘data productivism’- the belief that generating more and more data benefits all. In the context of agriculture, data productivism implies that generating large amounts of data is key to ending global hunger, fighting climate change and improving farmer livelihoods. Digital tech- based solutions are a key element of datafied food systems. Critics of datafication believe that farmers should have the power to decide who generates data, and for what purpose.
On the second day of the conference, a presentation titled ‘Citizen Science and its Impacts on Implementation of Soil Health Card; Good Governance in Gujarat’ by Diwakar Kumar, JG University, Ahmedabad, presented the conundrum of Soil Health Card (SHC) implementation. Under the SHC scheme, soil samples are collected from the fields of Gujarat and tested. Based on the quality of soil tested, a SHC is given to the farmer. This comes with recommendations on fertilisers and other inputs to be used to improve soil health. The problem with implementing this scheme is that the farmers do not adequately follow the recommendations. Scientists seem frustrated and blame farmers for their lack of knowledge. Farmers claim that the recommendations do not suit their field, and when followed do not show any positive outcome. The gap between scientific presumptions and the farmer’s experience of what works in the field is revealed. Moreover, it shows an inherent bias of the scientific community towards the use of chemical fertilisers.
Thus, a complete paradigm shift needs to occur when ushering in sustainable transitions in agriculture. The balance between accepting genuine tech- based solutions and critically evaluating the rest was discussed in a presentation titled ‘Digital as Innovation Model for Agriculture- Underlying constructs and emergent (non-) synergies with sustainable food futures’ by Anupam Kumar, School of Public Policy, IITD. Using infographics from social media and company reports, he showed how digital agriculture technologies - smart apps, IoT, Kisan drones- are being pitched by emerging start-ups to transition Indian agriculture towards sustainability. Anupam contended that one way to analyse these promises by agtech firms is by framing their underlying constructs under three baskets— scaling, packetisation, and assetization. However, the very terms - scaling, packetisation, and assetization- need to be critically analysed for their underlying constructs. Any modern technology that strives to relate to larger ecological concerns, needs to problematize its own parameters. They need to recognise that their parameters come from not just scientific but also economic paradigms, which are now being questioned.
Academic engagement with agroecology is striving to transcend the binaries between modern vs traditional. While the term ‘modern’ certainly has very particular epistemic roots and ‘traditional’ comes with the stigma of stagnancy, the knowledge of producing food sustainably is continuously evolving in spaces both modern and traditional. As indicated by the multiple discussions on the drudgery of women, ‘tradition’ is not accepted uncritically. On the other hand, there is an undeniable need to innovate and pursue creative solutions to engage with agrarian issues while, at the same time, safeguarding the interests of farmers. My biggest takeaway from the conference was that contributions to agroecology are welcome from all corners as long as they are in synergy with the larger vision- creating a pro-farmer and sustainable food system.
Devahuti Sarkar is an MPhil scholar at the Department of Political Science, University of Delhi working on the politics of knowledge in agriculture. Her thesis examines agroecological interventions across India to explore plural knowledge systems that provide creative solutions for climate change.