Saturday Sprouting Reads (Agritech Fullstacker's Dilemma, Punjab, Marxist Guide to Agritech)
Greetings from Hyderabad! Welcome to the December edition of fortnightly Saturday Sprouting Reads!.
Programming Note: This edition will be shorter than usual because I am taking a break this weekend, while this post would go live as scheduled.
On a serious note, for the paid subscribers of this newsletter, I want to share this in all honesty: I go through guilt trips when I don’t follow my regular publishing schedule. In my head, the bar I have set for each of my posts is this: It should be truthful and compelling enough to change your mind.
And when I don’t sense that strongly in what I am churning out, I take a pause and come back again. All I am saying is this: I may not be regularly publishing every week as per schedule. But, I will try damn hard to change your mind every time you spare your valuable attention towards my writings. Thank you for being a subscriber of Agribusiness Matters:)
My name is Venky. I write Agribusiness Matters every week to grapple with vexing questions of food, agribusiness, and digital transformation in an era of Climate change. Feel free to dig around the archives if you are new here.
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.
[Subscriber-Only] Agritech Full Stacker’s’ Dilemma
Most full-stack agritech startups are raising funds.
Most agritech startups are (eventually) full-stackers.
And when you meditate enough on full stackers in agritech, the question that needs to be asked is this: What happens when ‘permissioned leverage’ of capital is offered only to full stackers?
If you want to understand what is playing out in the politics of farm laws repeal in India, a good place to start is to have an ear to the ground in Punjab.
I found this article a moving account of what is causing deep churn in the agrarian state of Punjab.
Punjab is restless. It is in pain. It feels let down by the State’s politics, its leaders and political parties. A sense of its political alienation from Delhi is palpable. It desperately wants to trust somebody. It is looking for that somebody. Perhaps it also knows, at the back of its mind, that there is hardly anybody it can depend on. And that finally, when the time comes, it has to choose a political platform that is less undependable, and unwillingly settle for it for the next five years. Price rise, drug menace, joblessness, farm laws, fall in incomes, increase in thefts, lawlessness, insult to sacred text cause anguish to its people. What is more painful to them is the perception that its political leaders and successive governments are indifferent to these issues. There is hopelessness in the young of the State. Even in tiny villages, the walls have the screaming advertisements of agencies that offer visa and immigration help to Canada and Australia. So too for institutes that coach students for the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) tests.
I don’t know about you. I don’t hold on to any view strongly in this newsletter. I am interested in exploring reality, as it is and as it could be, fully cognizant of the biases that I hold.
Most Indians who grew up in the eighties like me have gone through their share of Marxist historiography in understanding themselves and where they come from. And in any case, diverse ideologies are important, if you venture out to study the polarities that have shaped human history. As I have mentioned earlier, the best books about money theory are written by communists.
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.
I found Vijay Prashad’s writings as an interesting Marxist guide to agritech. In this piece, he shares what happened in COP26 with respect to Agriculture, as he saw it.
Based on a report that is deliciously titled, “Big Tech and the Current Challenges Facing the Class Struggle,” Vijay identifies five guiding principles driving Agtech:
A free market (for data). User data is freely siphoned off by these firms, which then convert it into proprietary information to deepen corporate control over agricultural systems.
Economic financialisation. Data capitalist companies depend on the flux of speculative capital to grow and consolidate. These companies bear witness to capital flight, shifting capital away from productive sectors and towards those that are merely speculative. This puts increasing pressure on productive sectors to increase exploitation and precarisation.
The transformation of rights into commodities. The fact that public intervention is being superseded by private companies’ meddling in arenas of economic and social life subordinates our rights as citizens to our potential as commodities.
The reduction of public spaces. Society begins to be seen less as a collective whole and more as the segmented desires of individuals, with gig work seen as liberation rather than as a form of subordination to the power of large corporations.
The concentration of resources, productive chains, and infrastructure. Centralisation of resources and power amongst a handful of corporations gives them enormous leverage over the state and society. The great power concentrated in these corporations overrides any democratic and popular debate on political, economic, environmental, and ethical questions.
Reading through this, I was reminded of another insightful paper that further corroborates this view: Make bloom and let wither: Biopolitics of precision agriculture at the dawn of surveillance capitalism
Pay attention to this slightly verbose conclusion, if you want a quick summary:
The automation of agriculture is discursively framed as a ‘smart’ innovation of sustainable agriculture, securing food systems against the climate crisis. Yet the assemblages of Precision Agriculture represent a biopolitical imperative to manage more-than-human populations by extending capitalist relations in agrarian spaces through new technologies of data surveillance, unencumbered by temporal limitations.
Precision Agriculture’s ability to generate and manipulate “big data does perhaps present an ‘inward’ turn of capital’s spatial fix and a commodification of subjective experience” (Pickren, 2018: 234).
Agritech companies engage in legally protected data grabbing of users’ information about their food production systems. Through engaging with the technological interfaces of Precision Agriculture, farmers’ actions become digitized as preferences and behaviors, used by agritech companies to shape consumer behaviors. Agri-algorithmic subjectivity is performed and contested in these cyberspaces, producing new terrains of food politics and new neoliberal state-citizen relations.
Agri-algorithmic subjectivity is an underrated subject that hasn’t been given adequate attention so far. Few years back, I had read another important paper that had delved deeper into this.
Our report demonstrates the ways in which automated and AI technologies tend to mask the human labor that allows them to be fully integrated into a social context while profoundly changing the conditions and quality of labor that is at stake. In our discussion, we focus on the ways in which this dynamic shifts ingrained community norms, interpersonal relationships, daily routines, and skill sets.
We find that although new skills are often required, they are usually unacknowledged and uncompensated. We also find that adopting new AI technologies produces economic risks that are not evenly distributed among stakeholders, wherein more vulnerable or precarious communities are exposed to greater risks and harms than those who control the design or use of AI technologies.
In the agricultural context of family-owned farm management technologies, we argue for the necessity to frame the introduction of new AI technologies as being integrated rather than deployed, emphasizing that a technology must be used by specific people within existing norms and practices. This distinction is crucial if we want to understand not only how AI technologies like precision agriculture are changing farming practices but also how these changes are being adopted or rejected and who is likely to benefit.
Framing AI in agriculture as “integrated” rather than “deployed” may seem like a simple semantic change. However, if given adequate attention, it can bring a new way to introduce technologies in a sector that has resisted digitization wisely for a reason.
So, what do you think?
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