The 2023 Agribusiness Matters Year in Review
Round up of articles published in Agribusiness Matters with an introspective, year-end, hand-wringing prologue of review.
Few days back, a friend asked me why I write about agritech when I could be building the next big agritech startup. A reasonable question indeed. Most product and tech guys of my ilk start writing newsletters about their industry either when they are advertising their expertise in the jobs market or when they are on a sabbatical, trying to figure out what to do next.
It’s been three years of Agribusiness Matters as it grew to one-third of a job (financially speaking), read across 94 countries with 37K+ readers across LinkedIn and Substack.
It has been a wild ride that has had its exhilarating highs and excruciating lows - from accidentally stumbling upon an additional portfolio career in geopolitical strategy advisory (I hope to talk about it someday) to seeing the startup in which I invested my personal savings shut shop.
Three years is long enough to figure out if something is worth doing.
I looked at my friend in her eyes and shared my deepest conviction that feels alive in my bones - I find it more meaningful and challenging to build a community. I am deeply grateful from the bottom of my heart that I get paid to do this for a living.
It is my deepest conviction that when communities of changemakers in food and agriculture systems -Yes, I am talking about YOU- are nurtured, grown, and served with systems thinking about the possibilities that beckon us and the problems that bedevil us in these insane climate chaos times, it is possible to marry art and creativity with impact ventures.
It also helps to surf the technological tailwinds of the creator economy which prioritizes community as the currency of growth. When communities become the currency, a lot of possibilities open up.
This year, it is the humble ecosystem engineer beaver.
"Beavers make ponds that, at first glance, are not much different from any other pond. However, we found that the biodiversity -- predominantly water plants and beetles -- in beaver ponds was greater than and surprisingly different from that found in other wetlands in the same region.” - (Source)
This year Agribusiness Matters organized 12 members-only town halls, 13 podcasts, 20 subscriber-only “State of Agritech” updates, and 37 free posts. In doing what I am doing in Agribusiness Matters, what am I really doing?
I strive to mimic the role of an ecosystem engineer played by the humble beaver.
In a domain in which…
…the optimism of agritech doesn’t engage adequately with the time-worn cynicism of agriculture,
…the rarified pursuits of policymaking don’t engage with the agrarian ground realities,
… ”Development” and “Agribusiness/Agritech” sectors speak in strange Greek and Latin terms and don’t understand each other,
…the threatening Damocles sword of Climate Change doesn’t often engage with grassroots-level optimism of change,
…you can never hermetically seal off politics from agriculture.
…there has never been a greater urgency to do ecosystem engineering in agritech.
“Beavers, the animal that doubles as an ecosystem, are ecological and hydrological Swiss Army knives, capable, in the right circumstances, of tackling just about any landscape-scale problem you might confront. Trying to mitigate floods or improve water quality? There’s a beaver for that. Hoping to capture more water for agriculture in the face of climate change? Add a beaver. Concerned about sedimentation, salmon populations, wildfire? Take two families of beaver and check back in a year.” -Ben Goldfarb, Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter
We have never dared to embrace the whole of food and agriculture systems in its entirety; we’ve been content to perpetuate fragments, invent corners where we feel conceptually secure and emotionally safe.
Had it not been for Climate Change, each of us working in food and agriculture could have had our safe little nooks and niches when we naively attempted to break the wholeness of our food and agriculture systems into bite-size bits.
Whether you call it Complexity Sciences or Systems thinking (we will delve into the difference in 2024!), as I see it, such pursuits can no longer afford to be the pet preoccupation of high-minded academics and rarified thinkers sitting in ivory towers.
It has to be practiced in the here and now where the rubber meets the road. Let’s look around and be honest. It’s an ugly chaos we have created and we try to remedy the complicated situation with the most superficial of patched-together cures.
Today, our predicament is such that we have now started coining new words to describe this ugly chaos.
Whether we call it “polycrisis” (Adam Tooze) or “omnicrisis” (Adam Elkus) or “permacrisis” (John Robb) or “permaweird” (Venkatesh Rao), it is important to note that our collective responses to grow muscles of resilience need to manifest locally, stemming from first principles, fractal enough for change makers to organize into swarms and orchestrate movements, either as radical agritech ventures or farmer-conscious agribusiness ventures or planet-conscious social businesses or otherwise.
As vitally committed human beings concerned about the quality of life we have created for ourselves and creating for the next generations, we must penetrate to the source, the roots of chaos.
Is not the source of the collective misery of our broken food and agriculture systems that neither serves us, farmers and consumers, nor the planet the acceptance of a very narrow, superficial view of the totality? Are not the roots of our chaos in our ignorance, denial of wholeness?
Unlike previous years, I have organized my 2023 writings so far based on systems thinking principles I have discovered in practice.
When I launch my Systems Thinking in Food and Ag 101 course in 2024, each of these principles will be the modules that I will cover in greater depth with real-life examples.
Faustian Bargain of One-Dimensional Success
Agriculture is a fascinating multi-dimensional, multi-agent domain that penalizes you for one-dimensional success and you end up being trapped in a perverse game of incentives.
Is Agritech Party Over?[Podcast]
Ashby’s Law of Exquisite Variety:
This scary-sounding law says something extremely profound: We need as many varieties in the system as there are varieties of stressors in the system.
Divergent Agritech Futures [Podcast]
R. Ford Denison, in his book Darwinian Agriculture, explores how evolution could help us do agriculture better, critiquing “trade-off blind” biotechnology on one end, and “mindless mimicry of nature” on the other end.
Talking of the latter, he explores the trade-offs involved in the collective performance of plant communities and the individual competitiveness of plants. At one point, he asks a central question that has deep repercussions for the way we are designing digital agriculture systems.
“Have ecosystem-level features, such as the mix of species and how they are distributed in space and time, been reliably improved by natural processes?”
Production Hubs in Agriculture: Case Study
Why should you care about ecosystems in Agriculture?
Root Cause Myth in Complex Food And Agriculture Systems
When you understand that agriculture is a complex system, you discover the fundamental tenet that distinguishes a "complex" system from a "complicated" system: In a complex system, there are no root causes.
Much like Israel, would India eventually climb the paradigm of farmer-owned farm ponds and embrace aquaculture at scale, in a sharp deviation from the community-driven watershed approach that never separated soil and water in the first place?
What happens when you apply linear approaches to cyclical phenomena?
Unpacking Methane and Animal Nutrition [Podcast]
Unlike other [X}tech domains in which a sufficient understanding of technology can supersede your insufficient understanding of the [X} domain you are working in, [Agri]-Tech, unfortunately, doesn’t offer you those privileges.[Podcast]
Examining a food’s underbelly is crucial to not only understanding food’s origins, but also culture’s origins. Cultural evolution, if you approximate it enough in linear terms without being teleological, was designed to prepare homo sapiens (even though we may not be wise) for modern life over a span of 5000 years.
I have some big ideas in 2024 to discover newer systems thinking principles that are drawn from my work in food and agriculture and continue my agritech ecosystem engineering work forward!
I will be launching Agritech MBA course in January 2024 for outsiders and industry veterans to make sense of the changing global agritech market landscape. I am deeply grateful to the paying subscribers who have helped me progress this far and continue to create more value for you!
I am looking forward to a fantastic 2024! Wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
So, what do you think?
How happy are you with today’s edition? I would love to get your candid feedback. Your feedback will be anonymous. Two questions. 1 Minute. Thanks.🙏
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