January 17, 2024

Disruptive digital food and ag techs invading indigenous territories in India

Episode 3 of 'Who will control the food system?'
Food Barons report cover art showing peasants resisting corporate digital giants

Tune into the next episode in our latest podcast mini-series, Who Will Control the Food System, where we uncover just who's pulling the strings of industrial agriculture, dissect the latest corporate strategies, and take inspiration from the peoples and movements fighting back.


In East Godavari district, Andhra Pradesh, India, an Adivasi farmer gave his personal data and information, including his telephone number, to a representative of the Indian government. In India, “adivasi” is a collective term used to refer to indigenous people.

The farmer later learnt that this information was made public and embedded in a GIS map. He was also made to join a Farmer Producer Group and was part of a platform called Producers Market which claims to facilitate direct relationships between consumers and producers using emerging technologies and digital devices, protecting farmers from small traders who are supposedly 'exploiting' them. The farmer was made to believe that this project was good for him as well as for agribusiness companies.

But was it?

Just how and why are big data and tech in agriculture moving into the territories of indigenous people in India without their knowledge or consent?

How is the sustainability narrative being flipped by big business to penalise people living in the forests and reliant on shifting agriculture?

And how are agribusiness corporations planning to squeeze small food traders out of the food supply chain?

In our third episode, Zahra Moloo talks to Sagari R Ramdas, a member of the Food Sovereignty Alliance in India, about the impact of disruptive technologies in indigenous territories in India. Sagari is a veterinary scientist and a popular educator at the Kudali Learning Centre, where she facilitates education programs in social justice, food sovereignty and buen vivir. She writes and works on issues related to social justice, food sovereignty, livestock and ecological governance.

Listen in as we explore these questions!

To find out more about the digitalisation of food and agriculture you can also watch our animation “Big Brother is Coming to the Farm: the Digital Takeover of Food” (available here in Arabic, Bahasa Indonesia, Bisaya, English, Filipino, French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and Swahili – and with a version in Hindi on the way).


The food we eat can go through a long journey before arriving on our tables, from farms and fields, to markets or supermarkets. And then to our homes, each stage in this journey can look very different, depending on who controls the process. On a farm, is it a small-scale farmer who plants and harvests your produce? Where do they get their seeds from? Do they share seeds amongst themselves as they have done for thousands of years? Or do they buy them from companies? Why, during the pandemic, did nearly a billion people go hungry while food and agriculture giants made exorbitant profits? In this podcast series, we will look at who controls our food systems and how those trends are changing.

We will investigate which companies are starting to take greater control of commercial seeds, farm machinery and grocery retail. We will look at how and why big tech companies like Amazon, Microsoft, Alphabet, Google and Alibaba are moving into food. And we will examine new trends unknown to most people, like carbon farming and digital platforms. Join us as we take a look at who controls and who will control our food systems.

In East Godavari district, Andhra Pradesh, in India, an adivasi farmer gave his personal data and information, including his phone number to a representative of the Indian government. In India, adivasi is a collective term used to refer to indigenous people. The farmer later learned that this information was made public and embedded in a GIS map. He was also made to join a farmer producers’ group and was part of a platform called Producers Market, which claims to facilitate direct relationships between consumers and producers using emerging technologies and digital devices that are supposed to protect farmers from small traders who exploit them. The farmer was made to believe that this project was good for him as well as for agribusiness companies.

But was it? How are big data and tech in agriculture moving into the territories of indigenous people in India? What narratives are employed to appeal to farmers and what are the consequences?

I am Zahra Moloo. In this third episode of Who Will Control the Food System, I will speak with Sagari R. Ramdas, a member of the Food Sovereignty Alliance in India. Sagari is a veterinary scientist and a popular educator at the Kudali Learning Centre where she facilitates education programs in social justice, food sovereignty and Buen Vivir. She writes and works on issues related to social justice, food sovereignty, livestock and ecological governance. I will be speaking to her about disruptive technologies in indigenous territories in India.

Sagari, thank you for speaking with me today on Who Will Control the Food System. How did you come to be aware of and to work on the impact of data and new technologies in the territories of Adivasi people?


We are an alliance where members are from different Adivasi communities from across Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. One of the inquiries which we are really investigating coming out from conversations and dialogues happening within the alliance was this entire hype about this project - which was earlier known as Zero Budget Natural Farming, an agroecology project funded by the State of Andhra Pradesh. We decided through the alliance to actually interrogate and really unpack what was going on in this Agroecology project which is in fact - even as we speak today - being so globally championed as one of the greatest success stories of upscaling agroecology with state support.

The reasons we had so many questions [about this project] were twofold.  First of all, we have lived the history of Andhra Pradesh which is one of the first states in India to have experienced all out entry of capitalist markets in the last 30 years. What is called liberalized economic reform in India was nothing else but deregulation of the state and replacement of the welfare state with a market economy.

Secondly, in the course of investigating this agroecology model we stumbled across all these various connections of how data and new technologies were being tested out in territories of Adivasi peoples and beyond, without their knowledge, without their consent, without any of the requirements which are actually written in the constitution and in the law.


You've mentioned these different projects and you wrote a piece about this. It seems like the process through which Adivasi farmers are being incorporated into new agricultural value chains that are overseen by big tech involves having farmers join producer organizations, and then having their lands designated as “compacts”. This is something you write about. These compacts are then placed on a map by a platform called SourceUp.

You've explained a little bit how these digital platforms or these digital sort of technologies work but can you explain a bit more in detail, for example what is SourceUp and what are these digital technologies that are being used?


In our own investigation, we've come across several prototypes which are being tested. There's another one which you mentioned in the introduction - something called Producers Market for instance - which seems to be one of these blockchains’ systems. Blockchain is one of the central pieces of making these supply chains more traceable: you can track these supply chains, you can actually do things like traceability etc. So this Producers Market, for instance, was one such blockchain fired platforms which was connecting ZBNF [Zero Budget Natural Farming] produce via producers of an indigenous Adivasi area in Andrha Pradesh in one part with Producers Market on the other, to sell your produce to consumers. Consumers can then access and purchase via this kind of platform.

Similarly we then discovered this other platform called SourceUp. If you go into the SourceUp website you find that SourceUp elaborates and describes itself as a collaboration platform for supply chain sustainability at scale. It's a platform that links agri commodity companies with multi stakeholder initiatives in producing regions.

So the way they describe themselves is that it is a platform which is connecting markets in producing areas for “responsible sourcing” - this is the term which is used - "at scale" by linking stakeholders in these producing areas along supply chains. What they basically do is link buyers and producers via what they call the creation of “compacts”. They describe a compact as an area which brings together different stakeholders. There are governments involved, civil society, NGOs, private sector and the actual producers who are aggregated through these farmer producer organizations. That is then designated as a “compact”. And then of course it's mapped out with satellite mapping, they use all kinds of technologies, Google Cloud is involved over there, they have links with something called “Trace” which again seems to be yet another company which is bringing together all kinds of digital technologies to enable traceability.

So what they basically do, this is designated as a compact, they say that a compact has the power to transform agriculture production systems far beyond what an individual producer, local governments or civil society or traders can do alone. So it brings everybody on to this landscape. So you're really talking about a landscape level sourcing where they start dictating indicators. These are indicators of sustainability. Finally the power of who decides the indicators, who sets the terms, rests with SourceUp.

When you look into who forms SourceUp, you come straight into the people who have created the problem in the first place. You're talking about people like Unilever, PepsiCo, Carrefour, JBS, these are the big bad boys in the business. What we read into this is that you're trying to whitewash. You have this kind of packaging which is creating a narrative that it's all okay: these are good people, what they are trying to do is good for the earth, they are talking about sustainability.

For us what's of deep concern is that they designated a compact, which is an indigenous territory which is governed differently, by the laws of the land, by indigenous people who have rights there, who have the right of consent, who have the right of rejection, and they don't know that their area has been designated a compact.


It's quite complex to understand in terms of the different layers of how a land has been designated as a compact, in terms of platforms like SourceUp and then who's behind that. So, actually it sounds like a whole digital infrastructure: you're mentioning agribusiness corporations that were actually behind these technologies such as Unilever, PepsiCo… Which other companies are involved in these digital platforms and how are they benefiting from these digital technologies on Adivasi lands.


I'm just referring back to SourceUp, for instance. They have a global steering committee and when you look at their global steering committee: it is Unilever, PepsiCo, Mars, the Tropical Forest Alliance, something called Proforest. When you go deeper and you look at their other partners over there, there are people like Carrefour and like JBS. These are big businesses. When we investigated deeper into Unilever for instance, Unilever has this entire setup where they're really investing in digital technology so that they can sustainably source soya, coffee and cacao. They are using their technologies such as AI, the cloud and blockchains. They want to actually trace this supply chain to figure out where there are any breaks, are there any small traders who they define as leakages. The term “tracing”: this sounds to me like digital surveillance. So when you look into the Unilever site for instance, they talk about how they are encouraging people to take photographs of small traders, which are then posted onto their website.

There is then another layer of how that gets incorporated into other forms of digitalised satellite maps. Essentially what it appears to me is that they use the technology to have complete control from end to end. You know? This entire ecosystem end to end, from producers right to the plate - to the consumer.

So what do those companies gain? Their gain is a sanitisation of the agribusiness. There's a sanitisation of the agribusiness which is happening when they join into such platforms where globally for instance the APCNF is today being seen as a wonderful project of agroecology.

It is the Andhra Pradesh Community-managed Natural Farming, which is the big agroecology farming project which people have been so taken with. It's being championed globally right now - as we speak - even in COP 28, it's one of these big projects being shown as a model of how sustainable food systems can be actually created through this kind of agroecology models which are financed by the state.

So how do agribusiness benefit? Let's not forget that today in this entire game of digitalised farming, data and the control of data is so key. Agribusiness is today going into data: look at Unilever or PepsiCo’s websites, or any big agribusiness who has an interest in food - all of them have an interest in data. So all of this is providing them with amazing free access to data which they are then going to utilise in furthering their own business.

Secondly, digitalized technologies are promoted as the sustainable way in which business is being done, in which your food is being sourced. For example when I look at the Unilever website, they talk about the different kinds of technologies they are using. There is something called “anonymous data signals” they are getting from mobile phones, there is satellite imagery and artificial intelligence, there are photos which they are getting done through crowdsourcing.

Then they are able to identify “illegal traders”, because all these technologies and all these models are being pushed on the premise that everyone else except themselves are exploitative traders. They are pushing this narrative. So small traders - small little people who are in the business of buying and selling - are the supply chain points today which big agribusiness wants to close. Those areas of the supply chain today in a country like India are still highly fragmented. So when they talk about closing the supply chain, this is exactly where they are using these digital technologies to really be able to strategize how to push out those small traders and take over the entire supply chain in those regions. It's about data, it's about who controls data, it's about who is setting these indicators of sustainability.

Unilever is involved in a compact in Ache, in Indonesia, which is about palm oil and soya. You see that for them they don't even recognise that people exist in these forests, there is a relationship of indigenous people in the forest which is not taken on board when they come up with these indicators of sustainability. So their indicators of sustainability are like “how much of deforestation has not happened”.  They don't look at things such as the fact that the entire base of palm oil itself is so destructive.

Therefore today, in the case of the Adivasi regions, shifting cultivation for instance - which is a very core part of their food farming system - will be off the indicators of sustainability; it will definitely show up as an indicator of non-sustainability. So the way that indigenous people are interacting with their forests, the way they go and collect forest produce, the way they go and hunt, the way they go and forage, the way they practice shifting cultivation, the way they govern their forests, where they graze their animals, all of these will be considered as unsustainable.

So what is the agribusiness gaining? It is gaining control over data, over the decisions around what we define as sustainability. They're also advancing their monopoly over the entire food system because they're talking not about just one region or one landscape, but about this entire global supply chain. And the agribusiness is being facilitated by the state.


It's interesting that they have managed to turn the narrative upside down so that small traders are seen as a negative part of the food system, whereas agribusiness are able to paint themselves as the good guys.

We are going to take a short break and when we come back we will look at how agribusiness has co-opted agroecology and how the Indian government has built a whole agritech ecosystem.

Welcome back to the third episode of Who Will Control the Food System. So Sagari, you've talked about this move towards agroecology as a way for agribusiness to paint themselves as sustainable. But how are they able to do this? Because we know that agroecology is a practice or a movement that's been promoted by the food sovereignty movement and by smallholder farmers. In fact it's shown itself to be the alternative to the agribusiness corporate or industrial food system. So how have these agribusiness companies managed to paint themselves as sustainable and engaged in agroecology?


They've managed to do it because of the state. The nature of the state is something that we as movements need to be really looking at very crucially.  Look at the FAO for example: everybody internationally was so excited when agroecology was formally recognized by the FAO as one of the ways forward to really set right the food system, a system that is completely controlled by corporate agribusiness, with all the unsustainability that goes with industrial farming, corporate farming etc.

At the same time today, when you look at the agroecology model in Andhra Pradesh, the state is presumably financing this project, but you have to look into the sources of those finances coming to the state. The state today is the one who is leveraging and providing but states are so indebted. India's own indebtedness to the World Bank and the IMF is a huge percentage of the GDP. So the state is willing to get literally any form of financing. One of the financing sources of the agroecology model in Andhra Pradesh is BNP Paribas. We know how dirty BNP Paribas is, it is one of the worst banks financing dirty coal fossil fuel, and everything in the book.

So when the state is agreeable to this kind of financing, these kinds of partners, that is how business is getting their validity and legitimacy: It is the state - and we are not willing to interrogate what lies behind the state. This is very important to me, we really need to be looking much deeper into this. We shouldn’t just be impressed by the fact that the state finances the agroecology upscale model. No, we have to be much more nuanced, we need to be ten steps ahead of where the state is today. Because we have states which are controlled by agribusiness, we have states which are completely sold out to the advance of capital. We can't just - for the sake of advancing agroecology - turn our eyes away from the foundations.

When we talk about food sovereignty, we are talking about bottom line equality of land ownership, for instance. Andhra Pradesh has one of the worst and most unequal land ownership realities in India. How can you talk about agroecology on such a foundation of inequality? These are the questions which we have to really be analyzing within the alliance: when you look at the government of India’s agriculture policies. You asked the question of how comes today the agribusiness are the good guys and the small traders are the bad guys. But in all the analysis, ever since I remember the liberalization process in India in the 90s, the small traders, the small people, have been constantly being flagged as the exploiters. I am referring to the first market’s deregulation in India, in the dairy sector. Today of course the dairy sector is pretty much controlled by a handful of dairy agribusiness processing companies which are cooperatives, but corporate, agribusiness cooperatives.


You talked about the whole liberalization trend. But in terms of technology and agriculture - and technology moving into the agricultural sector, when did that begin? Is this something that happened relatively recently? Is this something that's been growing more rapidly? And are there any regulations in terms of this trend of big tech moving into agriculture within India?


It's something that has been really underway since the last decade. The government in power today has pretty much been in power since 2014. They have powered this in a way that we had not seen before. And of course, the arguments they use when you look at the government website, they say that the  agriculture sector has multiple challenges. One of the main challenges they flag is at the level of production, then market linkages, supply chain, climate change, weather hazards… and their solution for these are agri tech solutions.

I'm now going to describe what the government of India has set out and how this agri tech ecosystem has been built. Some of the areas where the government of India describes this is called the Indian Brand Equity Foundation. It's on a website which is actually anchored by the Ministry of Commerce and Industry. This is another thing which has happened in post liberalization: you have government’s ministries which are actually floating foundations and these are foundations which amplify the voice of the government. It gives you a very clear idea of what is being set out.

For instance they talk about India's agritech sector opportunity - which is valued today at some US$24 billion - having a market penetration of less than 1% today. Therefore, what they are basically saying is that they envision that there is 99% of that market still out there which needs to be controlled. And which are the areas where they see it? They've listed these out as well. They listed out segments they call “downstream ag tech” which they describe as B2B and B2C platforms, which are already connecting farmers with businesses and consumers. Then they have “digital solution and precision ag tech”: these are digital solutions being given to farmers or services which are advising them on precision farming, sensor-based solutions, and their companies like Cropin, which have been able to raise investment for that. Then there is what they call “midstream ag tech”: these are like agricultural technologies which are providing supply chain solutions on logistics, on warehouses. So they are companies that have been able to raise finances and are already operating here.

Agri Biotech, Farm to Fork, Upstream ag tech : these are like biotech and all the different seed, agrochemical and nutraceutical companies investing over here. And then agriculture financial tech as well: this is where they are really looking at, providing credit, providing insurance. You already have these kinds of people who are operating in the landscape.

They are  trying to really create an environment for agri tech startups. Right now apparently there's some 450 agri tech startups already in the business. They want to really make this a space for agri tech startups and they've listed it out where they see these opportunities. They say that the small holders are such an opportunity for agri tech because in India about 84% of the Indian farmers are small holders. They want to be able to really influence - and they use these words - to influence the life of small holders by offering access to loans, insurance, inputs, market connectivity…

Then climate change: they want agri techs to be offering paid services to farmers on weather forecasting, satellite imagery, when to plant and what, increased mobile internet and smartphone penetration… They are seeing these agri tech startups who can be digitally interacting directly with small holder farmers.

They have described very clearly the role of the government in agri tech. How is it made easier for digital to reach the farmer? It is through farmer collectivization. So very clearly the government has said that they have created farmer producer organizations, funding them to the extent of something like US$750 million over the next five years, to establish over 10,000 farmer producer organizations. Why? Because these will be an aggregated farmers base allowing agri tech firms to access and scale up their business models.

Secondly they have developed something called Agri Stack. They tested it out initially through models in different states. For instance in Andhra Pradesh, in 2015, Agri Stack was tested: it is a centralized database of agriculture data that's going to be linking all the information related to a farmer into this centralized database. And then the government is essentially going to allow agri tech companies to access this data, so that they can tailor their products to sell them back to the farmers.


Basically what you're saying is that at all levels of the agricultural and food system, you have these digital technologies that are capturing that part of that agricultural system with the aid of the state and through the aggregation of farmers as a market, through these farmer producer’s organizations. Just to talk about the farmers’ aspect, or the farmers that have been co-opted into these technologies: the narratives that these agri tech companies and platforms are using are to convince farmers that these technologies are actually good for them. How has this been received amongst farmers? Has this been convincing to them? Have a lot of farmers bought into these systems? Because the scale of what you're describing seems huge. What has been the response from farmers to these new technologies?


The indigenous Adivasi farmers were not informed about the FPO (Farmer Producers’ Organisation) they  were joining. They just thought it was yet another group. So Adivasi had not been informed that this group was an FPO with this intent that when you get aggregated you would potentially be linked up at an upstream and a downstream level to various kinds of agri business institutions. They were completely unaware that their group was even part of this larger design. That for us is the most critical point: farmers were not informed.

In Adivasi territory, the state has played a very strong welfare role. There is a trust relationship built up. If I have a problem I go to - let say - the integrated tribal development agency. In turn, when that agency is bringing in a particular program, there is an implicit sense of trust: “Okay I will trust this because at the end of the day this is the group which is also providing me with other kinds of welfare services”.  Farmers in India are not just one homogenized kind of grouping. There are middle farmers, there are large farmers, probably more like medium level farmers and medium to large level farmers. Many of them are actually probably benefiting, or maybe buying into these narratives. So it really also depends on where you are.


What are the long-term consequences for small farmers, when they are co-opted into these processes and they become part of these processes.


Very crucially, there is the question of your own control over the decision-making process. Even today, the system of farming is pretty much set up to be pushing monocultures, moving away from diversity, moving away from the actual principles of food sovereignty. There is a real fear about who is going to make decisions. Today, small farmers and Adivasi farmers who may have already put up a substantial proportion of their small holdings under one commodity crop - it could be cotton, tapioca, cocoa, they are still able to make choices such as: “Okay I'll put a certain proportion of my land under a crop, or I will choose between one company seed versus another company seed”.

But once you get into this entire digitalized system, you are losing complete control over even your own knowledge. Today as an indigenous person - even a small farmer - you can traditionally read the science of weather, you can read your soil, you are a scientist. At the end of the day you are a scientist reading your soil and your weather, you have got systems of local sharing of knowledge, of co-producing your knowledge, of co-creating your practices. All these amazing networks about how you select your seeds, how you store your seeds, how you decide a combination of crops…all of these are constantly co-creating your knowledge based on your praxis. It's a reflexive system, an ongoing system. But if you are going to be tied into a system which is controlled by big tech and big ag, your mind will lose the ability to think. The way we are building our resilience is actually building our webs of people people's webs of seeds, our webs of knowledge, our webs of praxis. There is no point in just having your land rights. All these agribusiness systems seem to be very clear about rights. Of course having your rights is so important, but a rights discourse based on inequality would not help.

And beyond rights, all these questions related to decision making processes, governance, control and knowledge are so core that when they are controlled through AI or machine learning, it's essentially alienating your mind, it alienates you as a human being. I think that's such a scary reality which is coming up.

Thank you very much Sagari for speaking with me today.

That concludes our third episode in our podcast mini series Who Will Control the Food System. To find out more about agriculture and big data, please visit ETC Group's website, www.etcgroup.org. ETC Group also has an animation which breaks down the digitalization of agriculture, called Big Brother is Coming to the Farm, which you can find on our website. You can find all our podcast episodes on the ETC Group website or on Spotify on ETC Group podcasts.

Stay tuned.


Please consider supporting ETC's unique research and advocacy with a tax-deductible donation. Donate here