Can Farmer Live By The Internet Alone?

In which I meditate over Captain Gopinath's poignant Oped on Zomato IPO and what it means for food and agriculture

"Please understand Your Excellency, that India is two countries in one: an India of light and an India of darkness. The ocean brings light to my country. Every place on the map of India near the ocean is well off. But the river brings darkness to India-the black river”

- Balram Halwai in Arvind Adiga’s Man Booker Prize Novel, “The White Tiger”


Dear Readers,

Welcome to the eighth edition of Sprouting Reads!

You can check out the previous editions here.

Sprouting Reads #1: Amitabh Kant's Agritech Oped, Jain Irrigation's Recast Plan & India's Edible Oil Problem.
Sprouting Reads #2: TCA Ranganathan's Opinion on Farms and Cities
Sprouting Reads #3: Jagadeesh Sunkad on Farmers' Share of Consumers' Price
Sprouting Reads #4: Zack Fuss on Breaking Down the Food Ecosystem.
Sprouting Reads #5: Agritech Venture Capital Dilemma -Rhishi Pethe's Interview with Sarah Mock
Sprouting Reads #6: Water, Wars and the Future- The Story of Water Cooperatives in South India

Sprouting Reads #7: Greg Meyers' Friendly Call to Arms to Agribusiness($)

About Sprouting Reads

If you've ever grown food in your kitchen garden like me, sooner than later, you would realize the importance of letting seeds germinate. As much as I would like to include sprouting as an essential process for the raw foods that my body loves to experiment with, I am keen to see how this mindful practice could be adapted for the food that my mind consumes. 

You see, comprehension is as much biological as digestion is.

And so, once in a while, I want to look at one or two articles closely and chew over them. I may or may not have a long-form narrative take on it, but I want to meditate slowly on them so that those among you who are deeply thinking about agriculture could ruminate on them as slowly as wise cows do. Who knows? Perhaps, you may end up seeing them differently.


Can Farmer Live By the Internet Alone?

As much as I live by the Advaita philosophy that essentially states, “All dichotomies are false”, the storyteller in me loves to frame dichotomies to make head and tail of any domain.

The Future of agriculture is a battle between prophets who want to respect the earth’s limits and wizards ($) who want to push the earth’s limits. The future of agri-input retailing is a battle between startups emulating Amazon and Walmart algorithms ($).

With this background in mind, you might perhaps appreciate the central thesis underpinning Season 2 of this newsletter, deliberately framed as a battle between sustainable agriculture and profitable agriculture.

Beyond my love for dichotomies, there is a deeper reason, if you venture out to study the polarities that have shaped human history. The best books about money theory are written by the communists.

Have you read Labour Theory of Value? If we go past our collective biases, you would realize that it’s a fascinating take on the capitalist system. David Graeber’s book, Debt: 5000 years is another excellent money theory book written by a communist.

The best book ever written about sustainability was written by a crank economist. If you want to understand the complexity of the agrarian crisis in any country, pay attention to socialists who talk about agriculture. You may or may not agree with their solutions and recommendations, but their diagnoses of the problems ailing agriculture trump those diagnosed by capitalists.

The best generalization of this uncanny phenomenon was articulated by economist John Kay in his excellent book, Obliquity

Strange as it may seem, overcoming geographic obstacles, winning decisive battles or meeting global business targets are the type of goals often best achieved when pursued indirectly. This is the idea of Obliquity. Oblique approaches are most effective in difficult terrain, or where outcomes depend on interactions with other people.

It is the Obliquity principle that drives my interest to study agriculture by taking courses on all allied topics, except agriculture.

When Captain Gopinath wrote an insightful commentary on Zomato IPO, titled, Man Cannot Live By the Internet Alone, it was the power of obliquity that attracted me towards his essay.

Look at how he frames the lede of the essay:

For a question as old as hills and still potent enough to make any sensitive urban Indian feel guilty about his elitist privilege, the most eloquent explanation I have come across which answers this comes from Mancur Olson’s Logic of Collective Action.

As I have elaborated with data in my essay, ($)Rethinking Defaults of Agribusiness, it boils down to a default design pattern that has shaped the history of agriculture: Exploitation of Agriculture is required for Development

Agriculture, if you've paid notice, happens differently in developed countries and developing countries. Even if you've had paid scant attention to agriculture, you would notice a strange anomaly.

How come more farmers in developing countries have smaller say in critical decisions about their livelihoods than a smaller number of farmers in developed countries?

Theoretically speaking, in a country like India with 61.5 % of its population into farming, they must have a greater say about policies and decisions concerning their livelihoods than, say, America, where farmers and ranchers make up just 1.3% of their labour force.

How come we end up seeing more subsidies in developed countries with smaller farmer populations and more exploitation in developing countries with larger farmer populations?

What makes developing countries underprice agricultural products and overprice industrial products?

Gopinath further writes,

This is an extremely perceptive point if you understand how microfinance institutions ‘front-load’ costs onto the rural borrower. If you have pondered over how urbanites receive credit vis-a-vis the rest, this contrast becomes obvious.

When urbanites like you and me apply for a personal loan, the risk cost is spread across the common percentile of borrowers and absorbed by the bank. The same isn’t true when a farmer applies for an agricultural loan.

Essentially, all this handwringing about Zomato IPO and what it means about food and agriculture boils down to one question: What happens when technology leapfrogs faster than necessary agricultural market infrastructure? 

Wouldn’t it accelerate the inequality that is inherent due to uneven agricultural growth across the states?

There is a massive flow of capital that awaits Indian Agritech. Omnivore recently announced a $150 million fund “to be invested in tech-driven, predictive crop insights that can help improve productivity and profitability for farmers in India”

A recent Bain Report on Indian Agritech states thus:

Our estimates indicate that approximately $30 billion to $35 billion of value pool will be created in agri-logistics, offtake, and agri-input delivery by 2025.

There are many more in the offing, eyeing India as the massive golden goose that will lay the golden egg.

How do we make sure that these capital flows don’t accelerate the growing inequality that currently exists in Indian agriculture across different states?

How do we ensure that we have the agricultural infrastructure that is necessary for farmers to take advantage of the Indian agritech revolution?

My exploration of these existential questions will continue in these spaces.

Please enjoy your Sunday!

Cheers

Venky