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close this bookCERES No. 148 - Working out the links: labor in sustainable agriculture (1994)
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View the documentLow-input farming: Is it worth the work?
View the documentThe Kofyar variations
View the documentWhere inventions were the mother of necessity
View the documentGender analysis has a crucial role in planning workable farming systems
View the documentLabor in low-input systems: A bibliography
View the documentThe toilers of the field

Low-input farming: Is it worth the work?

Factoring-in the labor cost of sustainable agriculture

by Coen Reijntjes

Coen Reijntjes is a staff member of the Information Centre for Low-External-Input and Sustainable Agriculture, P.O. Box 64, 3830 AB Leusden, The Netherlands.


In the Sahel, Tuareg nomads and Bella tribes-people work together to prepare land to be irrigated - FAO photo by J. Van Acker

While the virtues of low-external-input, ecological farming are widely proclaimed - often to the point of being romanticized - much doubt remains as to whether such systems, practised by smallholders, can yield enough to feed the world's increasing billions. Skeptics insist there isn't enough organic matter or labor - especially labor - available to support a major shift to organic methods, and complain that the productivity of such systems is too low for the job at hand.

How valid these criticisms are - and how much is mere assumption - is difficult to decide, given the lack of hard data available to provide a comparison of the costs (in terms of labor and capital needs, risks and environmental effects) and benefits of inorganic, chemical-based versus organic techniques.

Recent studies, however, tend to confirm that local conditions will almost always dictate the answers, and the best systems are usually those developed by smallholders themselves - in response to population pressure, market opportunities for their produce, and dwindling land availability.

Spur of scarcity

Most farmers in the tropics work little plots around their own homes under diverse, complex conditions, often combining subsistence and market production. Much of the work falls on women, as men seek cash in non-farm activity or hire out as field labor on larger farms. Minimizing risk is a prime family objective.

Simultaneously, land availability is dropping while population - and hence the labor pool - is growing. This is an important driving force for change in smallholder farming. If people cannot move to areas where land and other resources are still plentiful, they have to increase the amount and predictability of the crops they produce in a limited area.

"Without the spur of scarcity, people do not intensify their farming, for the simple economic reason that it is more work, and return on labor may be smaller," observed social scientist Ester Boserup in a 1981 study of pre-industrial agricultural societies.

As illustrated in Robert Netting's article on the Kofyar people of Nigeria (see page 22), such soil-saving techniques as manuring, intercropping and elaborate ridging - all highly labor-intensive - may not be adopted until demand, generated by population growth and the prohibitive expense of less labor-intensive techniques, makes their use vital.

Netting sees Boserup's model of intensification as revolutionary, since it casts doubt on other scenarios that make technology the prime engine of agricultural change. The latter views progress as the ability to tap larger sources of energy, rendering human labor less necessary and more efficient as animal and mechanical power and fossil fuel provided substitute energy sources. Technological inventions, from the digging-stick to animal traction and the plow, iron sickles - and finally tractors - made it possible to produce more while increasing labor productivity. In general, however, these "labor-saving" inventions are only useful where sufficient land is available and labor is relatively scarce - conditions that don't usually apply to smallholder farming on tiny plots or to the mixed cropping systems typical of land-intensive agriculture. There, the capital needed for higher technology may not be available, or could be used more profitably elsewhere. Replacing human labor with mechanical power is also socially unacceptable when alternative job opportunities are scarce.

Nevertheless, improvement and development of implements, especially those which can support "organic" techniques such as mulching, composting, management of trees, etc. would be very helpful to decrease labor requirements of those same techniques.

Acceptable sin

Environmental degradation - the "cardinal sin" to proponents of ecological farming - is often acceptable to smallholders as long as survival is not at stake. In fact, it may even be needed to a limited extent as an incentive for intensification. As Netting's Nigeria study shows, "traditional" intensification seems to lead to better conservation of resources. This was also the conclusion of a study on intensification of land use in Machakos, Kenya (Tiffen et al., 1994, to be discussed in a subsequent issue of Ceres).

However, serious degradation may occur where farmers don't succeed in adapting their systems fast enough to needs or where economic, political or cultural processes seduce or force farmers into unsustainable development, or drain their resources.

"Modern" farming methods involving inorganic fertilizers, pesticides, machinery and improved seed varieties are land- and labor-saving. But they bring with them their own problems, chiefly their financial cost, negative impact on biodiversity, and environmental pollution. Readily adopted in regions with favorable production conditions, in the major part of rain-fed agricultural regions of the tropics their adoption was restrained by the cost of inputs and unsuitability to local conditions.

Many poor areas that did adopt such methods have seen the benefit go bust. In Argao in the Philippines, for example, a decade after Green Revolution farming methods were adopted, farmers found their harvests started to decline due to degradation of the agro-ecosystem following overuse of chemical pesticides and fertilizers (see page 25).

Realizing their survival was at stake, smallholders in Argao were motivated to shift to organic contour farming. That system is much more labor-intensive, not only in the initial transition period when the contour hedges are established, but also after the ecosystem is more or less balanced again, at which point fields still require 50 per cent more labor than did chemical farming.

On the other hand, after establishing their organic contour farm, households can obtain the same level of production as with chemical farming, but with a higher net profit per hectare because they no longer have to pay for chemical inputs. Greater profit is possible by mixing fruit or other high-value trees in with the contour hedges.

The Filipino farmers found it difficult to give up cash income from off-farm work, in order to dedicate their time to changing over to an organic farming system. However, such transitions can be adapted to each household, by spreading construction of contour hedges over several years, and only gradually combining organic practices and chemical fertilizers.

The situations were relatively favorable in both Kofyar and Argao for intensification and transition to organic farming. But for farmers in more marginal conditions the transition is more difficult because it threatens their immediate survival.

External factors also can discourage farmers from investing time and labor to make the transition: unfavorable government pricing and subsidy policies; farm indebtedness; insecure land tenure; the strong lobby of agribusiness; extensionists' and researchers' disinterest in organic farming and in farmers' knowledge and agricultural traditions; a lack of information, training and general support (Kessler & Moolhuijzen, 1993).

It is obvious farmers will not move to more sustainable systems unless the need is apparent in terms of their own survival, and many of the above-mentioned hurdles are taken out of their way.