Agriculture and Innovation: MIT Sloan students gain unique global perspective on agribusiness

A group of 22 MIT Sloan students recently travelled to Brazil and India as part of a student-led class about innovation in agriculture. Throughout a six-week course, they studied supply chains, the economics of organic farming, and the ways in which agriculture in industrialized nations differs from that of its developing counterparts. As a capstone to the course, the students traveled to each nation to learn from farmers, middlemen, and consumers how these innovations directly affect them.

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Play video: Farmers’ Markets
Play video: Organic vs. Pesticides

The class, “Agricultural Innovation in Brazil and India: Creating Value Across the Supply Chain,” was conceived and implemented entirely by a team of five students. Erica Dhawan, Shayna Harris, Weisen Li, Daria Kaboli, and Adah Chan, all MBA ’11, worked with MIT Sloan faculty member Kara Blackburn to construct the syllabus, arrange for a host of topic-specific classroom speakers, and organize the actual trip.

Splitting up into smaller groups within each country, the students developed case studies focusing on a variety of issues related to sustainable agribusiness, from supply chain implications of organic farming in India to computerized tracking of produce bound for Brazilian supermarkets. Students met with farmers, buyers, grocers, lobbyists, commercial food producers, and a host of other organizations and individuals impacted by the agricultural industries in each nation.

Outside Pune, India, one group of students saw first-hand how one corporation, Tasty Bite, is exploring the viability of pesticide-free farming, and several hundred kilometers away, Jayant Barve, the “godfather” of organic farming in India, explained how his cattle make up an integral part of his methodology. They explored the local mandi, a government-regulated marketplace, speaking to buying agents, and experienced the Kisan Mela, an agricultural fair, in Ludhiana.

Meanwhile in São Paolo, Brazil, another group of students was given an in-depth look at the computerized tracking system used by Brazil’s largest supermarket chain, seeing the process as food traveled from the field right onto the store shelves. They explored a state-run marketplace, learning about pricing standards, and stayed with host families in Afogados da Ingazeira, in Brazil’s northern state of Pernambuco, gaining exposure to organic practices in small-scale farming and even helping to bring the farmers’ produce to market.

Part of the annual spring study tours at MIT Sloan, the Agricultural Innovation trip focused on exposing its participants to global insights and viewpoints unattainable in a traditional classroom setting. “Sustainability is not about how business impacts the world,” says trip organizer Dhawan. “It’s about how the world impacts business. If we don’t understand the world, then we won’t understand business.”

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