Varun Bhardwaj is a PhD student at the University of Auckland Business School in New Zealand.
His research builds on his grandfather’s legacy of working toward agricultural resilience.
Currently, he is about to finalize his PhD on the ecological sustainability in food systems.
Here is Varun’s story.
What are some memorable experiences you have had during your time as a PhD student?
I attended the first ever New Zealand Agricultural Climate Change Conference and got to meet one on one with almost all of the speakers and presenters.
I also did a six-month internship with a software company in Spain, where I got to work directly with the CEO. We developed and implemented a small market research project. The organisation wanted to sell software to the global agri-tech sector and I worked with the CEO to identify latent demand.
I also participated in a start-up competition where I pitched an idea centered around sustainable food systems. The idea recruited the interest of seven other team members and we were shortlisted into the final round of presentations.
I also volunteered with a community organisation in my area to run a vegetable stall at a local market. I was responsible for liaising with the local farmers, picking up the produce, merchandising, making weekly decisions around product pricing, and collecting revenues. The market was held once a week. I ran the stall for three months.
What inspired you to pursue a PhD?
My grandfather was an agronomist. He was involved in the green revolution in India. He wanted to make it easier for farmers to get by in the dry months. He worked with others to develop a drought-resistant variety of dwarf wheat. His motivation was centered around the needs of the majority of farmers, who relied on manual labour and did not use chemical fertilisers. With the diffusion of the technologies of the green revolution, machines and chemicals on farms became the norm. The food system in India took a turn for the worst.
To carry forward my grandfather’s legacy, I believe that my work must respond to the challenge of my time. He was solving hunger in the dry season, and to some extent he succeeded through his work in agronomy. However, the current food system not only contributes to ecological issues, it lacks diversity and redundancy, and hence it cannot bounce back from the ecological shocks that scientists expect are coming.
When I learned about some of these issues during my Master’s research into sustainable consumption, I became inspired to do a Phd so I can learn more about these issues and work to solve them. Is it enough for organisations to want to pursue their own survival? What does organising look like when organisations work to prevent wider ecological collapse?
In brief, what is the empirical method you are adopting in your thesis?
I observed that most organisations lack meaningful incentives to work towards “long-term ecological welfare” (Bigoni & Mohammed, 2023). A temporal horizon further away than the possibility of human life poses a formidable and unprecedented challenge for organisations. My research revolves around thematic analysis of semi-structured interviews with organisations embedded within food systems in different parts of the world. Through the interviews, and their analysis, I aim to provide a more nuanced glimpse of what organising looks like when organisations proactively work to improve the state of natural systems.
Can you describe a “eureka moment” you might have had during your PhD?
During the sensitisation phase of my PhD research project, I encountered a community of nomadic cattle herders from Rajasthan. I was in New Delhi, India, visiting family. By abandoning my car and walking with the cows, I was able to build a rapport with one cow herder. He told me he had been walking with the cows for 28 years. Over the years, he had been a father figure to many herds. And each herd was home to 150 individual cows. None of his cows ever gave any milk. He looked after the young ones before they were married off. Before they started giving milk, he found suitable homes for them, where they and their children would be well looked after.
He had nothing against milk-giving cows. In fact, he was the owner of another enterprise which profited from the products of milch cows (cows kept for milking). However, his heart was in walking with the young ones. And that is what he did with his time. He knew all of their names. He knew their peculiarities. His herd of young cows had many social groups. Friendships between cows were forged and negotiated as they ducked in and out of traffic, as they found new pasture, and as they huddled together at night. Relationships between individual cows and humans were nurtured over years.
My cow herder was loved dearly by his cows. This became obvious to me when the cows almost attacked another man for shouting at him and pointing fingers at him. The man was simply telling him to get his cows off the road. His suggestion would have been better received by the cows if it had come in peace. My cow herder had to stop talking to me and quickly become the only thing standing between a group of angry cows and that man. Once the cows had been pacified, and the cows had given way to cars, relations between my cow herder and the man were restored. All of this happened rather quickly.
I walked away from that encounter both puzzled and inspired. I was puzzled because my image of the neatly framed organisation first self-destructed and then disappeared. I was inspired because the absence of that image made it possible for me to re-imagine organisation.
What side projects, communities, or other initiatives are you involved with?
I am a dedicated Graduate Teaching Assistant. For the last two years, I have been working with colleagues to develop an innovative module for teaching climate change negotiation skills to second year business students from all departments.
What hobbies or interests do you enjoy outside of work?
I love photography and videography. I also practice Ashtanga yoga, Vipassana meditation, and Carnatic music.
What three tips would you offer to new PhD students in your field?
- Always remember why you started the long journey you are on, and always be willing to question your own motivation.
- Never give up on your quest to complete your PhD, even if it means completely re-imagining everything you know about your topic.
- When you finally reach the destination, and you realise it looks different to what you had imagined, don’t forget to smile at yourself and forgive yourself for taking the image of the submitted thesis so seriously.
In brief, what does the GRONEN community mean to you?
The GRONEN community is a safe space for young researchers with a focus on ecological sustainability issues. The events, workshops, and sense of belonging GRONEN provides are second to none.
What’s next for you?
I am submitting my thesis this year. Fingers crossed. After submitting, I intend to grow in my research and teaching practice.
Elizabeth M. Miller is a doctoral candidate at Aalto University School of Business in Finland. Her work focuses on systems change and circular economy.