A Response to India's agricultural crisis

Note: This post may be hard to follow/incoherent if you haven't heard the podcast episode embedded in the next paragraph.

A colleague and I were recently talking about the state of politics in India. To set some context, he in general tended towards a laissez-faire approach while I preferred a protectionist model. When the discussion turned to the 2020 Farmers' protest, he introduced me to The Seen and the Unseen podcast - Ep. 140: India's agricultural crisis

I found this podcast highly informative and have subscribed to it despite several philosophical differences with it. That said, here are some of my issues with the material presented.

The case for a regulatory body

What was presented: Bt Cotton was a primary plot point for the first part of the episode. The protagonists were the outlaw farmers who used Bt Cotton and were the only ones who managed to survive a bollworm-induced crop-failure. They also used this as proof that farmers aren't as unenterprising as the "urban elite" would like to believe. Current issues include approving HT-Bt Cotton and Monsanto pulling its application for new seed varities because of the regulatory overreach and price-fixing.

What I agreed with:

What I feel was missing:

  1. There are lobbies on both sides - and it is hard to say which is more insidious. Mahyco who make Bt Cotton was/is? a subsidiary of Monsanto - a company with deep pockets, which was even more deeply mired in controversies. So much so that their new owners (Bayer) ended up dropping the name to avoid disrepute.
  2. Apprehension towards GM-crops isn't specific to India and till date Bt-Cotton isn't permitted in Hawaii, USA. From my quick reading online, it appears that while Bt Cotton was successful in turning around the fate of cotton farming in India, it isn't without its issues - there seem to be a surge of GM-tolerant strains of pests - requiring constantly reintroducing newer generations of genetically modified seeds. While this might seem analogous to the pesticide-tolerance issue that farmers already face, there is a further complication I outline in the next point.
  3. Monsanto enforces vendor lock-in. GMO seeds are considered patented technology. Farmers cannot save the seeds from previous yields - they need to pay royalties to Monsanto for each yield. And they are willing to sue farmers who inadvertently get Monsanto's genes into their crops because of cross-pollination. Deregulation of all GMOs is in essence turning over the reigns to multinational conglomerates.

The Precautionary Principle

In my opinion, this was the weakest segment of the show.

The host claims that the humanitarian cost of applying the precautionary principle is too high in agriculture and so it should be done away with. This is defensible, but debatable. My challenge to this would be that we often underestimate the intensity of a misstep until it is too late - Nassim Taleb's The Black Swan brings up this challenge too - Not a single person would have received an award for reinforcing air-pilot's cabins that made 9/11 impossible to pull off since it wouldn't have happened. So the person who did do that would retire one day thinking they achieved nothing remarkable. However, the person who pitches the idea post-hoc and helps clean up the mess receives a lot of plaudits. People who apply the precautionary principle often go unrewarded for all the calamities avoided - precisely because they achieved what they set out to achieve.

However, one of the guests (Barun Mitra?) seems to lose the plot.

This is an absolute strawman. There are degrees to which the precautionary principle can be applied. One can need a well defined approval process - the fact that there is lack of transparency in the government is an issue that needs to be addressed regardless of deregulation.

Furthermore, while GMOs have proven to be safe over the last 30 years, the issue here is that they take a class of items and extend it to an individual item. Take for instance the same stance and apply it to medicine and you will see why it is terrible to do away with the precautionary principle - "Modern Medicine has worked for the last 300 years. So we should not apply the precautionary principle to new formulations and pre-approve all medication".

While GMOs are not bad, individual mutants should be tested extensively before widespread use. The approval process in India might be slow. But take a hypothetical GMO that while being resistant to a particular pest also kills certain endemic species or results in the land becoming unarable. I was shocked at the callousness with which the speaker called for completely doing away with the precautionary principle.

Land-ownership restrictions

What I agreed with: Farmers who want to exit agriculture shouldn't be given a hard time. I couldn't find much material on farmers not allowed to go landless - though if that is true, I support the rights of farmers to move to other fields.

What I felt was missing in the discussion:

The authors implied that the inability to sell farm-land was the reason India wasn't going through an manufacturing revolution. However, a recent report from McKinsey indicates that the 3 key areas of improvement for our manufacturing sector are

  1. labor (and capital) productivity which are 4 to 30 times lower than other nations in several sectors
  2. securing know-how and technology - less-developed sectors don't have the tech to really grow
  3. availability of capital - in terms of FDI

Unavailability of land for factories isn't even mentioned in this list and I don't think that is a mistake. Despite the high levels of population, there is an abundance of land available for setting up industries in India. The industrialists prefer that they are set up in agricultural basins - likely because of availability of established water-ways and cheap labor in terms of ex-farmers. However, this study does not square with the claim that inability to sell farmland stifles a manufacturing boom.

Furthermore the claim that agricultural land can be sold for 40-100x (I don't remember the exact number mentioned by the speakers) is confined to a small number of farmers living close to urban sprawls - which, again, is not going to facilitate the manufacturing industry since most of this will be reassigned to IT parks and upscale housing.

Schrodinger's farmer

Another issue that I found spread throughout the episode was fluctuating power-levels of the farming class. On the one hand, they are portrayed as being smart enough to use GMO crops which aren't directly approved. However, they also seem to be easy enough to dupe when the sugar mills hold back pay for several years and then pay them a fraction of what is owed to them. To me - and this is entirely a subjective interpretation of what truly happens on the ground - this sounds like they are conflating two classes of farmers

  1. The rich, sophisticated farmers who are hassled by the protections offered by the government - ones who are able to reach out to Monsanto and its subsidiaries and smuggle in seeds.
  2. The poor, under-educated farmers who labor on tiny strips of land, growing one or a few crops and are taken advantage of by private entities (like sugar mills) despite government protections.

The guests actually do state this to some effect when they suggest that the government is holding back entrepreneurial farmers who would otherwise be able to buy unlimited stretches of land to grow. This is definitely true - every program is going to stifle those who are several standard-deviations better than the average - schools syllabus is another such example. That is by no means just cause to the protections/boundaries in place.