Sprouting Reads #1: Amitabh Kant's Agritech Oped, Jain Irrigation's Recast Plan & India's Edible Oil Problem.

Introducing a new segment while I get over my newsletter writer's block. Plus! Few Updates on recent and upcoming agtech events.

There are days when I suffer from writer's block and there are also days when I suffer from writer's vomit.

Having returned from a deeply rejuvenating do-nothing retreat at my friend’s organic farm, I find myself at the former end, unable to shake off (or should I say not wanting to?) the afterglow of slowness that I allowed myself to experience in a long time.

I have also been experimenting with intermittent fasting over the past few days and examining my mental models on the quantity of food the bacteria inside me wants and the quantum of energy my human system wants to work at full capacity. [Clue: They are inversely proportional.]

Long story short. I am going to be little slow, and as subscribers, you have no choice but to come along and bask in the slowness that I am beginning to cherish. [Of course, you can unsubscribe, if you don’t want to hear such arrant nonsense].

You see, as I wrote elsewhere, intrinsic human operating intelligence is a function of slowing down.

And so it is in this light that I am keen to start a new segment in Agribusiness Matters. I call it ‘Sprouting Reads’.

Sprouting Reads

If you've ever grown food in your kitchen garden like me, sooner than later, you would realise 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 is currently experimenting 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 few articles closely and chew over it. I may or may not have a longform 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.

Jain Irrigation’s Recast Plan

My agribusiness mentor Jagadeesh alerted me to this piece. If you go past the tree of details and look at the forest this story is alluding to, you might realise this: Subsidy eats advanced farming technologies for lunch. This story is a classic case in point. Earlier in my newsletter, I covered Netafim India’s Beer Game Problems , and this story further adds to that narrative.

Unless we don’t decouple subsidy from farming technologies, we might end up paying a dearer price than we could imagine. Of course, subsidy sells votes and therefore the political powers that be would ensure that it is going to be a fixture in Indian agriculture, at least in the foreseeable future.

We may make shiny noise about DBT and sometime soon, we may even plumb enough fintech on the ground to ensure that farmers get subsidy money in their bank accounts at the beginning of their sowing season. But, fundamentally, would all of this add up to solve Indian farmers’ addiction to fertilisers and address the bane of subsidy in agriculture? I doubt so.

Amitabh Kant’s Agritech Editorial

That this editorial disappointed me is an understatement. If you want to foster a climate that would get clueless urban techies excited about agritech, then perhaps, Amitabh’s oped could serve a valuable purpose. But otherwise, I don’t see it moving the needle of agritech discourse in a sensible manner. Of course, you are most welcome to call me a cynic. I don’t mind:)

As someone who has been diligently studying the experiments that are being done in agtech, I find it hard to accept that we have “groundbreaking startups in the agriculture sector”. Whose ground? The postal-size small landholding farmer’s? Or the 1% among farmers who have bigger landholdings and could afford to participate in the technological experiments that Indian agritech startups are currently doing?

When Amitabh talks of “unprecedented technological catalysis leapfrogging Indian agriculture into the future with efficiency and equity”, I so wish the problems faced by Indian agriculture were simpler enough to wave a wand of “technological catalysis” at them.

Pay attention to the last phrase: “efficiency and equity”.

Can efficiency coexist with equity? Is it possible to do sustainable agriculture without sacrificing efficiency? If I am running an agritech startup and let’s say, theoretically speaking, my system learns enough data to use Laplacian Operator to detect the ripeness of a fruit. Now, in what ways could my technological system be deployed inside Indian Agriculture context to ensure efficiency AND equity ? What would be the shape of such a business model? Why aren’t we probing these questions?

India’s Edible Oil Problem

If you consider the emotional fact that India is crazy about its street foods, you would be alarmed to note that in a country like India, we continue to import 70-75% of edible oils, thanks to weak global prices.

B.M.Vyas and Manu Kaushik further write,

“It is primarily palm and soybean oil both non-indigenous to the country, the cuisine and its people. Palm oil in itself is 50% of the oil consumed in India, one of the unhealthiest oils on the planet.”

These sensible words, mind you, are coming from the former managing director of GCMMF Ltd and had been instrumental in the launch of brand ‘Dhara’. Those who were born in India during the eighties would remember that sweet-as-hell ad with a twinkling eyed child jumping in joy as soon as he enters home.

“Jalebi?” Do you remember?

Mind you, GCMMF Ltd. is the organisation which birthed AMUL and attempted to replicate its success in milk in oilseeds and failed miserably. They write in great candour the tragic tale of a country which once produced 98% of its edible oil requirement has now come to such a hapless state.

In India, there is a lot of sweet talk going on about “Atmanirbharta” [Self-sufficiency], especially in the wake of COVID. The authors here ask a powerful question that is yet to be answered in earnest: What does it take for us to be self-sufficient in edible oils? Do we really want it?

Updates from the stable of Agribusiness Matters

  • Recently, Rhishi Phethe, Product Manager on Project Mineral at Alphabet X, (Google), did an interview with me on the controversial Farm Laws in his newsletter: Software is Feeding the World. It was a fun chat and we covered a lot of ground which would be familiar to regular readers of this newsletter. We spoke about Farm Laws, historical context, supply chain issues, VC investments in AgTech in India, AgTech companies. etc. I was also happy to see the kind of reactions it garnered.

  • I am going to be doing a TEDx Talk Event on 30th January. My talk will be titled, “Building a Bridge Between Nascent Agritech and Ancient Agriculture”. You can register for the free event here.

  • I did a fascinating conversation with Shubhang Shankar, one of those rare VCs with whom I could passionately talk about Marx. He is also, ahem, a subscriber of Agribusiness Matters. We discussed
    - How to make sense of the jajamani [feudal] system in India?
    - The social laboratory of whatsapp groups and what they tell us about public perception of farm laws
    - Karl Polanyi's Great Transformation and what it tells us about free markets
    - Debt Financing and the Limitations of Private Venture Capital
    - Why Indoor Farming isn't amenable to Venture Capital
    - The Two Kinds of Agtech Startups in polar ends of the funding spectrum.

    You can listen to the recording here and tune in to the chatter here.

  • I am going to be doing a live stream dialogue event on “Unraveling the Secrets of the Soil” with Jagadeesh Sunkad. Ever since I last spoke with Jagadeesh on various technical topics related to agriculture supply chain, I had been wanting to do further deep-dive with Jagadeesh on other topics.

    We decided to focus this time on soils, a seriously underrated and under appreciated subject in agriculture. How do we make sense of soils and our attempts to revitalise the soils? How do we design sensible business models that are tied with soil nutrient cycles ?I hope to see some of you there. You can RSVP here.

That’s all from my end.

Enjoy your Wednesday!