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Will agri-biz model benefit farm sector?

| | Updated on: Dec 24, 2021
Smart agriculture, vertical farm , sensor technology concept. Farmer hand using autonomous assistant robot arms for monitoring temperature , humidity , pressure and light of soil in strawberry farm.

Smart agriculture, vertical farm , sensor technology concept. Farmer hand using autonomous assistant robot arms for monitoring temperature , humidity , pressure and light of soil in strawberry farm.

R. N. Sahoo, a senior scientist at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), prepares to install a high resolution remote sensor used for crop mapping in a wheat field at IARI in New Delhi, March 20, 2015. Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants to promote a 'per drop, more crop' approach to farming to make better use of scarce water, and aims to have a new satellite crop monitoring system working in time for the peak of this year's monsoon in July. Picture taken March 20, 2015. REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee

R. N. Sahoo, a senior scientist at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), prepares to install a high resolution remote sensor used for crop mapping in a wheat field at IARI in New Delhi, March 20, 2015. Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants to promote a "per drop, more crop" approach to farming to make better use of scarce water, and aims to have a new satellite crop monitoring system working in time for the peak of this year's monsoon in July. Picture taken March 20, 2015. REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee

Unlikely from a sustainability standpoint, as most agri-tech firms focus only on supply chains and market linkages

Farmers who have been protesting on Delhi’s borders since November 26, 2020, recently suspended their agitation against the three farm laws the Modi government claimed would reform India’s agriculture sector. Taken together, these laws — repealed during the ongoing Winter Session Parliament — intended to relax regulations regarding the purchase, sale, and stocking of agricultural products and enable written agreement-based contract farming in India.

The underlying premise of these three laws, as private businesses involved in agriculture themselves have argued, was to enable private sector participation and investments in agri-food supply chains in the hope that efficiency gains will reflect in farmers’ income. While the laws have been repealed, the protesting farmers have called off their protests after the Centre accepted a few of their demands, such as the withdrawal of criminal cases against the protesters, and agreed to negotiate with them for their other demands.

The most contentious among them is the demand for a law guaranteeing Minimum Support Price (MSP) for their agricultural products, which are minimum prices announced by the government for select agricultural products at which transactions are deemed to be remunerative to farmers.

While much ink has been spilled on the pros and cons of these contentious farm laws, discussions have been few and far between regarding the direction Indian agriculture needs to take if it is to become ecologically and economically sustainable to farmers.

This shift to agribusiness-led development in agriculture can be seen in the continuation of a turn toward techno-entrepreneurial development in India that has taken off in the last decade, evident in the number of start-ups.

There now exist more than 600 agri-tech start-ups that interact with nearly 14 million farmers across the country. Covid-19-induced stay-at-home orders by Central and State governments severely curtailed the movement of farmers and further increased their dependence on agri-tech firms’ activities, such as procuring directly from farm gates and the delivery of agricultural inputs to farms. These activities are monetised by such firms to achieve growth and scale to new markets.

The question is, will this agribusiness-led development model be beneficial for Indian agriculture and agriculturists? Decades of scholarship on industrial agriculture has argued that any conception of an agrarian future needs to centre on ecological sustainability, understood as sustainable usage of natural ecosystems, along with the economics of cultivation. Is the agribusiness-led development model in Indian agriculture promoting ecological sustainability of farming?

During my fieldwork in 2021, the agri-tech entrepreneurs and investors I talked to differentiated agriculture as a sector from other sectors of the Indian economy, not just in terms of its rural situatedness, relatively less-developed infrastructure (including patchy internet connectivity despite the recent revolution in low-cost data), lack of avenues for monetisation of their products and services, but, more importantly, due to its ecological basis.

For instance, crops have a temporal cycle from sowing to harvesting, most agricultural products have a finite shelf-life to be transported long distances, and there is an urgency for ensuring ecological sustainability of farming in the country. Yet, an overwhelming majority of the emerging agri-tech firms have concentrated on agricultural supply chains such as home-delivering agrichemicals to farmers and ensuring market linkage of agricultural products rather than day-to-day cropping operations and ensuring the sustainability of farming.

While they speak about agricultural sustainability, they see it as a byproduct of interventions rather than a direct impact. Moreover, recent studies of developments in the digitalisation of agriculture as a result of techno-entrepreneurial interventions from elsewhere (such as the US) have argued that the recent technological and methodological changes brought about in agriculture are going to “shore up and intensify” environmental problems rather than solve them and it might lead to a “data grab” in addition to the ongoing land grab.

IDEA framework

Despite this, the Indian government is actively promoting techno-entrepreneurial development in agriculture. For instance, the agriculture ministry has released a draft framework called India Digital Ecosystem of Agriculture (IDEA) for promoting the digitalisation of Indian agriculture. The question is why?

First, proponents of techno-entrepreneurialism are driven by ideologies of technological futurism and neo-liberalism. During my fieldwork, I consistently observed palpable frustration amongst policymakers and influential agricultural economists about the incomplete process of the liberalisation of Indian agriculture that started during the 1990s.

Ramesh Chand, an agricultural economist in the NITI Aayog, argued in December 2019 that agriculture, which was left behind in the 1991 reforms agenda, requires a “paradigm shift” for the economic betterment of farmers. According to Chand, it needs “advancement in science-led technology, enhanced role of private sector in both pre- and post-harvest phases, liberalised output market, active land lease market, and emphasis on efficiency.”

The IDEA document also claims that digitalisation is important for elevating Indian agriculture to “higher levels of efficiency and productivity.” The underlying premise of these statements is that Indian agriculture is inefficient and greater private sector participation, export-oriented growth, and use of digital technology will bring about greater efficiency.

However, they fail to acknowledge that free markets do not work in agriculture for several reasons, one of which being that global agricultural markets are highly skewed as a result of hugely subsidised agriculture in developed countries of the global North. Also, they do not realise that technology-led developments in the past have led to the emergence of myriad problems that Indian agriculture is facing today such as soil degradation, depletion of groundwater, and increasing frequency of pest attacks.

Second, there is an inclination toward understanding agricultural development in continuation with developments in other sectors such as telecommunication and space. It is assumed that digitalisation will transform agriculture in ways similar to other sectors. However, even though agri-tech actors are increasingly recognising the ecological basis of agriculture, as previously mentioned, the masculinist techno-scientific approach toward agriculture continues; they stop short of recognising that these solutions remain ignorant of their own power to change the material world in unimaginable ways and may engender unintended consequences as the history of industrial agriculture has repeatedly demonstrated from all over the world.

Finally, the dominant industrial sociotechnical regime fiercely opposes any moves towards an alternative understanding of reforms (such as “natural farming”) as a recent study has demonstrated from Andhra Pradesh.

The affective structures generated by reliance on technology and progress need to be countered by alternatives such as natural farming, which may seem antithetical to science and progress to some in the agricultural bureaucracy. However, this remains an open question as to how this will happen if investments in alternative ways of thinking about sustainable agricultural futures are not made. One possible way is for farmers to harmonise their demands for minimum prices with these alternative agricultural futures for a meaningful overhaul of the agricultural system in the country.

The writer is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at UCLA. This article is by special arrangement with the Centre for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania

Published on December 25, 2021

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