The Agribusiness Matters Reloaded

It has been one hell of a wild ride. Time to level up the wicked game.

Dear Friends,

Today, as this Substack Newsletter baby turns one, I’m tripling the paid subscription for this newsletter and rebooting Agribusiness Matters. As a mammalian parent of a three-year-old, I know that important decisions that will set the life course of your offsprings should be taken in the first three years.

You might want to subscribe (or continue your ongoing subscription) if you want to…

  • …interrogate wicked, existential questions that sit at the uncomfortable interstices of Climate Change, Sustainability & Agriculture.

  • …probe, sense, and respond to the central conundrum that characterizes Agriculture today, circa 2021, in the nick of technological transformation: Sustainable Agriculture isn’t profitable. And Profitable Agriculture isn’t sustainable.

  • …venture boldly into the wilderness and grope the beast called Agriculture with humbling awareness of the impossibility of the task - We are the blind men, with each of us, in trying to cope with the mysteries of the beast, grabbing hold of some part or other, and, in the words of John Godfrey Saxe’s poem:

Rail on in utter ignorance of what each other mean, And prate about an Elephant Not one of [us] has seen!

Each part of the Elephant, as seen in my stunted imagination, by various people who work in the domain of agriculture. Remember this. The elephant is more than the sum of the parts.

Subscriptions will be priced at ₹ 1199 INR/month (~16 USD) or ₹ 11999 INR/year (~165 USD). You can subscribe via the link at the bottom of the email.

Subscriptions will be offered free for students and all those willing to bring other forms of energy in exchange to enliven and collaborate with the Agribusiness Matters Community. To know more and apply for complimentary subscriptions, click here. If you want to offer group subscriptions to colleges and institutions that are serious about the kind of questions I am interested to pursue, do write to me at venkyr@hey.com.

To embark on a journey that viscerally feels like walking over an oiled tightrope while riding on a unicycle over the Niagra falls, I could take the support of few partners in crime who share with me, in the beautiful words of Italian Philosopher Antonio Gramsci, “the pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will”, to confront the wicked challenges of Climate Change, Sustainability, AND Agriculture.

I am launching Agritech Partner in Crime track at a slider scale floor rate of ₹120,000 INR (~1657 USD) annually.

You set the ceiling rate and determine what value my writing brings to you. 

You can join the Agritech Partner in Crime (Watch out for the third option when you hit subscribe at the bottom of the email) if you wish…

  • …to get an insider peek of upcoming articles and research projects and an opportunity to contribute data points that challenge my mental models.

  • …to join the monthly private Agribusiness Matters Town Hall to reflect on my articles’ editorial decisions and probe the data points I include and, more importantly, exclude in my analysis.

This is important because I am accountable to my readers and subscribers. My goal is to be a truly independent analyst. While I have had consulting relationships with startups and agribusiness firms, as a policy, I maintain a strict firewall and keep my consulting work separate from my newsletter. My ongoing clients understand that I will never profile them in this newsletter. And for the same reason, Agribusiness Matters will never entertain advertisements or sponsorship requests.

Going forward, the 26821 (as of 01/06/2021) free subscribers of this newsletter over LinkedIn and Substack will continue to get access to Sunday Reflections and a brief prologue of my subscriber-only articles. The newsletter will continue to feature a mix of free and paid content. However, the balance will tilt more towards the latter rather than the former.

This is an important decision, and truth be told, I am nervous about how it is going to be received by all of you reading this. In all honesty, I want to share the story behind it, what I think makes me eligible to embark on this journey, before getting down to brass tacks and sharing more details on what to expect, and to subscribe, if you choose to.

The Story of Agriculture So Far

When I first turned on the paywall last year, I set the stage by stating that the future of agriculture is a contest between two polarizing, but seductive visions, quietly playing out, competing with each other.

Vision #1: Small land-holding farmers don't matter in the long run, as their farms will be eventually consolidated by the market economics of digital agribusiness.

Vision #2: Small land-holding farmers matter in the long run, as the world's (and therefore our) ability to face environmental crises and climate change depends on their sovereignty to pursue their economic well-being and adapt to the changing times.

I say ‘quietly’ here because while vast majority of agritech professionals, Venture Capitalists truly believe in Vision#1, they cannot be politically incorrect to acknowledge Vision #1 in public. There have been few exceptions though in the case of economists and agricultural policy professionals. 
Special thanks to Usha Devi Venkatachalam who suggested an important change in Vision #2, when I first spelled it a year ago in this blog. I am using the word sovereignty in a very specifc manner, without its unnecessary political baggage. Do check out this article if you want to know the earlier version of Vision #2 and understand what exactly I mean by sovereignty. 

Using the definition of James Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games, I characterized these two visions as Finite and Infinite Games.

Because our minds are so conditioned by the mechanistic, reductionist paradigm, the moment I spell out these two visions, we start to assume that both visions are at war with each other.

Which is true at some level, if you observe how those who evengelize Vision #2 cannot define themselves without calling out Monsanto and other BIG Agri Corporations as EVIL. 

Likewise, you see this trait in those who evangelize Vision #1 or coin hybrid categories like "eco modern". If you talk to them, at some point, you would hear them stating "scientific evidences" to dismiss "Organic farming" (or rebranded 'regenerative agriculture') as "completely misguided". 

At the heart of it, both visions are offsprings of a particular type of mindset.

Vision #1 sprints from the “Mechanism mindset”, while Vision #2 springs from the “Organism” mindset.

Those who pursue Vision #1 want to reimagine Farm as a Factory (Alternative Protein, Lab Meat, Indoor & Vertical Farming, Hydroponics, Aeroponics). Those who pursue Vision #2 want to reimagine Farm as Nature (Regenerative Agriculture, Steinerian Biodynamic Agriculture, Zero Budget Natural Farming).

Kevin Simler, in his fascinating essay, Technical Debt of the West, spells out how these mindsets assemble and grow respectively.

“Mechanisms come together by assembly, when a creator arranges raw material in just the right way to serve a particular purpose. They’re typically made out of discrete parts, each with its own purpose that fits into the overall structure. And they’re cleanly-factored and globally-optimized: the result of a far-sighted design process.

Organisms, on the other hand, aren’t assembled from the outside. Instead they start out small and simple, and expand outward while gradually complicating themselves. In other words, they grow. The result is a hacky mess of tangled parts, vestiges, fuzzy boundaries, and overlapping purposes: the hazards of a short-sighted, local optimization process.

“What is it for?” and “How does it work?” are the essential questions to ask about a mechanism. “What is its nature?” is the question to ask about an organism — a way of coping with its illegible complexity”

I am aware that I am making a gross simplification here when I state that those pursuing Vision #1 don’t have a need to switch to an “organism” mindset. 

Likewise when I make an argument that those who pursue Vision #2 don’t have a need to switch to a “mechanism” mindset. However, having worked personally with founders and executives across both Vision #1 and Vision #2 across many years, this classification intuitively makes sense to me. 

If you’ve been following me so far, the central conundrum which I spelled earlier at the beginning of this article, starts to make sense. The former is profitable, but not yet sustainable, while the latter is sustainable but not yet profitable.

Here is the most important point that sets the context of how I am perceiving the big picture.

I want you to consider mechanisms and organisms not as fundamentally different kinds of entities, but as two poles at opposite ends of a spectrum:

Is it too difficult to perceive Vision#1 and Vision #2 as sharing a yin-yang relationship with each other?

While many Climate Change and Sustainability activists vehemently advocate Vision #2 over Vision #1, (although there are few exceptions), the truth of the matter is that we cannot be serious about Climate Change if we don’t join hands with those pursuing Vision #1.

If we care deeply about the scale of technological transformation that is underway in agriculture, there is no other choice, but to see a yin-yang relationship between these two visions.

Let’s be clear, while vision #1 respects scaling laws, vision #2 is scale-invariant. What that means in plain simple English is that while it is important to work on Vision #2 for addressing the intersection of climate change and agriculture, it is equally important to work on Vision #1, if you care about transforming the underlying socio-technological infrastructure underpinning the ongoing digital transformation of agriculture.

This yin-yang relationship becomes even more clearer when I reflect on my personal journey in the world of agriculture.

In the decade since I started thinking about agriculture, the first six years from 2010-2017 were completely focused on Vision #2. Those were the times when I was extremely angry as an environmental activist after doing a course on Science, Technology, and Ecology.

I wrote angry book reviews of authors who flippantly talked about transforming capitalism. Today, when I revisit my old blogs, I shudder at the amount of anger I had during those times.

As I reflect on my behavior and where I am today, I can only thank my mentors who channeled those energies, instead of smothering them. Mind you, such energies of Greta’s kind are extremely precious if you are serious about c̶l̶i̶m̶a̶t̶e̶ ̶w̶a̶s̶h̶i̶n̶g̶ climate change.

During those times, when I was not living the boring day job of a technology consultant, I visited organic farms, attended Climate Change conferences, spent weekends in the company of rebels who built Fullerian geodesic domes far away from Indian metropolitan cities, volunteered in farmers markets, and took great joy in working with idealists who dreamed of a new relationship paradigm between consumers and farmers.

My weekend affair got serious when I quit my technology consulting life by the end of 2017. In trading my deck in a desk consulting life to embrace the dust and dirt of agritech life, I wanted to test my skin in the game.

In hindsight, this decision was an important fork in the road to go beyond my tunneled romantic worldview of agriculture that was heavily influenced by Vision #2.

I devoted the next three years as a product manager, building an agri-inputs traceability platform that eventually served close to five million farmers and 30K+ agri input retailers in India. I onboarded leading Agri Corporations of the world as customers of this platform and got to spend a lot of time with crop scientists and Ag Executives who were earnestly working to address fundamental profitability challenges in agriculture.

In 2019, when I quit the startup world to embrace the uncertain world of a free agent, my motivation (again, mind you, in hindsight) was obvious: Agriculture is far too complex to naively expect technology alone to solve it.

If there is one big lesson I've learned and earned from working in agriculture, it has to be this: Humility about the role of technology is a wonderful thermostatic trait to possess, especially when you are living in an age of exponential technologies.

And so the question remains - How do we bring a system thinking lens to address entangled problems of Climate Change, Sustainability, and Agriculture?

Today, when Climate Change is as important a threat as agriculture, now that reports emerge that COVID-19 could push the number of people living in extreme poverty to over one billion by 2030, what is the way forward?

What to Expect

Broadly speaking, newsletters are of two kinds- Those which are concerned with questions, and those which are concerned with answers.

If you’ve been reading my blogs, you would know which kind I belong to.

When I started Agribusiness Matters, the byline of this newsletter went like this: “Straight Talk on Digital Agriculture, Agritech and Agribusiness Matters. Because Let’s face it, Agribusiness Matters”.

Now, if there is any reason for me to wake up at 4 AM and get excited to do the work I want to do, it is to address this central conundrum: Sustainable Agriculture isn’t profitable. And Profitable Agriculture isn’t sustainable.

I will be maintaining a tempo of one issue a week, as most of my issues are fairly dense and take time to consume. Depending on how much subscription income is coming in, I might increase the tempo to 2-3/week to feature my ongoing exploration of this central conundrum. The more subscription revenue I make from this list, the more time I’ll be able to take off from consulting work to focus on writing. I do intend to continue with consulting though since a lot of the source material for my thinking and writing comes from that work.

If I end up with a surplus, I might be able to afford a research assistant to do more warm data stories that I plan to include in my content mix.

If you’d like to join me on this fun ride with wicked questions, consider switching your subscription to paid using the link below.