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close this bookCERES No. 135 (FAO Ceres, 1992, 50 p.)
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The ecology of the machine

For mechanization to succeed, it must be put in a realistic context
by R.C. Gifford

After 40 years of argument, missed opportunities and wasted resources, it's high time for the international community to rethink the role of mechanization in rural development assistance programs.

Why are so many developing countries no closer to meeting the food requirements of their people today than they were 40 years ago? Experience shows: millions of farmers in these countries haven't been able to move from subsistence to market-oriented farming because they lack farm power and the right implements. And it is only after most of the farmers of the Third World make this transition that they'll be capable of feeding not only themselves but rapidly expanding urban populations as well.

"Development professionals", and the politicians who control financial and technical assistance, should be taking another look at their programs and projects. It's time to discard mere fads and slogans like "small is beautiful" (sometimes it isn't) that have done little in the last 20 years to help farmers in the Third World get the mechanization inputs and systems they want and need - whether small or large - to produce enough food at a reasonable price to feed their own people.

Through much of history, the need to boost agricultural production could be met mainly by expanding the area cultivated, and new technology evolved at a relatively slow pace. The developed countries have had the past 150 years for an orderly application of mechanical-power technology to their farm sector. Even in the most advanced countries, cereal was harvested in the early 19th century with the same basic hand-tools that had been used for nearly a thousand years. Draft animals were still the dominant form of farm power in the United States and Europe during the first quarter of the 20th century.

Advances in technology were made by farmers and private entrepreneurs, who could respond to the needs of agriculture without any government intervention and needed little from the public sector or the international community.

Today, however, conditions have changed. The population of the world, which was four billion in 1975 and 5.3 billion in 1990, is expected to top six billion by the end of this century. A substantial increase in agricultural production will be needed, and developing countries can't afford to wait for the slow evolution of agricultural technology if they want to achieve their national development objectives. They are under tremendous pressure to compress the equivalent of 150 years of development into five to 10 years, and their governments have little choice but to take the lead in establishing the economic and social environment needed for success.

Key decisions

Governments must first make decisions on two major mechanization issues:

what is the total demand for farm power based on increased agricultural production goals?
what combinations of hand-tool, draft-animal and mechanical-power technology are best suited, technically and in terms of social and economic objectives, for specific situations in the country?

Making these decisions is difficult, due to the complex relationships involved, the number of factors to be considered and the inevitable political conflicts.

Farmers also have decisions to make. They must establish what type, quantity and quality of tools, draft power and equipment they can pay for. They must consider the potential for increased production and income, relief of drudgery - perhaps even the social benefits in prestige or community influence - advanced forms of mechanization technology can bring.

The farmers' decisions are less complex than those of governments, but to make them on a rational basis can be difficult. Farmers in the developing world don't usually have the farm records they need to guide them, and the help provided by extension service personnel is notoriously weak in most countries. It is hard for the farmer to fully understand and weigh alternatives because access to local models of mechanization systems is limited.

The international community, aid agencies and commercial financial institutions are also faced with complex decisions, which are often economically risky and politically sensitive. Commercial institutions are chiefly concerned with profit and need reasonable assurance that money loaned for agricultural mechanization can and will be paid back.

Bilateral aid agencies often have uncomfortable political choices. They feel an obligation to support their own machinery industry by insisting that their products be part of their aid packages, but they also want to be seen by their peers as providing the right inputs for the job.

In recent years, two new considerations have arisen: energy and the environment. Starting with the energy crisis of 1973, which sent oil prices shooting up dramatically, concern has grown over the need to conserve the world's supply of liquid fossil fuel and to increase the efficiency with which it is used. The needs of the urban sector tend to dominate government policy, and instead of giving food production priority, the use of energy in agriculture is challenged. Usually the challenge focuses on farm machinery, which takes the largest share of total commercial energy used in agriculture - just over 50 per cent, including operation and manufacture.

What the most vocal critics fail to point out is that agricultural production's share of the total world use of commercial energy for all purposes is only about 3.5 per cent and farm machinery's share only 1.79 per cent. It is seldom mentioned that farm machinery uses less than 90 million metric tons of oil equivalent a year for its operation and manufacture - while military and civilian jet aircraft use about 93 million metric tons worldwide.

The effects of agricultural mechanization on the environment have not always been good. Improper selection and use of systems for land-clearing and cultivation can cause excessive soil erosion and compaction, which make soil and water less productive. But environmental damage can be minimized by choosing and operating machinery better. It is also important to keep environmental concerns in perspective, by relating environmental costs to food production benefits.

Too often agricultural mechanization has been introduced and applied without adequate planning, direction or support, and the results are both unexpected and unwanted. Concern over this situation led the FAO to start actively encouraging and supporting formulation of national agricultural mechanization strategies in developing countries. This campaign, launched in 1975, was strengthened last year by the emphasis the 26th session of the FAO Conference placed on agricultural development strategy.

Putting machines in context

A rise in agricultural production is the prime requirement for setting the whole rural development process in motion. But the type, amount and level of technology chosen to meet the objectives of rural development must reflect the need for more than just higher production. It makes little sense to concentrate entirely on boosting food production when it is well known that production shortfalls are not responsible for much of the hunger in the world today. Poor people are hungry because they can't pay for the quantity and quality of food to meet their basic nutritional needs. The introduction and application of advanced mechanization technology must, therefore, also reflect the need to increase job opportunities, stimulate development of non-farm rural activity and generate benefits that accrue equally to all segments of rural society. It must help change social and institutional structures and the distribution of wealth and commercial traditions as well as lead to continued innovation.

Whether in human, animal or mechanical form, farm power is an essential component of all production, harvest, transport and processing operations in agriculture. Today, humans provide most of the power for farming in the developing countries - from nearly 60 per cent in Latin America to nearly 90 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa - and, with rural population growing, this is not expected to change appreciably over the next decade.

Animal power currently contributes nearly 10 per cent of total farm power in sub-Saharan Africa, 17 per cent in the Near East and North Africa, 28 per cent in Asia (excluding China) and 19 per cent in Latin America. Mainly because of increased demand for meat and milk and population pressure on grazing land, draft animal use and numbers are expected to decline significantly in some regions by the year 2000.

Mechanization on the rise

The use of mechanical-power technology for developing country agriculture is projected to rise in all regions of the world except Asia (excluding China) by the year 2000. In sub-Saharan Africa, it is expected to double from 1984 levels, while in the Near East and North Africa it will be up by nearly eight per cent and in Latin America by nearly 30 per cent. Tractors will play an increasingly important role, especially in Africa, in raising agricultural output by helping extend harvested areas. Theoretically, there is scope for using draft animals for this task, but in practice, disease problems and the lack of a tradition of using draft animals in most : countries still tends to limit their use.

Most developing countries are already capable of producing their own hand-tools and draft-animal implements. Countries with a higher level of industrial development could manufacture most of their requirements for tractor-drawn implements and assemble tractors with imported and domestically produced components as well.

But government policies are holding them back. Failure to allocate raw materials inhibits the growth of village blacksmiths and small rural industries, which would be able to fabricate hand-tools and animal-drawn implements at low cost. Unrealistic import duties and tariffs on steel and machinery components discourage establishment of the medium scale industries that could supply tractor-drawn implements and stationary equipment, and trade policies are often barriers to regional cooperation in farm machinery manufacture, which could reduce costs and improve the quality of tools and equipment available to farmers. This is a pity because hand-tool and draft-animal technology will continue to be the mainstay of farm mechanization in the Third World for many years to come.

A growing trend

Farmers the world over are becoming more and more aware of the ways in which mechanical-power technology could increase their productivity, reduce drudgery and help them lead a more comfortable life. Their determination to acquire more advanced forms of mechanization technology is becoming increasingly evident in nearly every developing country. This trend cannot be stopped, and even slowing it down will become increasingly difficult. The international community should accept this reality and adopt new approaches and innovative procedures for assistance that are focused on guidance for mechanization in Third World agriculture rather than on control.

It is usually impossible for visiting development professionals, acting alone, to determine which tools, implements or equipment are appropriate. They cannot possibly know enough about the technical, economic, social and political interrelationships that are crucial in each situation. It is local people, particularly farmers and other end-users of mechanization technology who, with the help of professionals when necessary, must decide what forms and combinations of mechanization input they need. To make their decisions they should consider:

the constraints mechanization could help them overcome;
the mechanization systems that are technically suitable and environmentally friendly;
the inputs they can afford and are prepared to buy;
the effects different levels of mechanization could have on social structures and development goals;
the institutional measures that are or could be put in place to support introduction and sustained use of mechanization systems;
the availability of national resources to acquire or mobilize the mechanization inputs they want.

What is appropriate

There is an appropriate level and type of mechanization technology for every farming system in every developing country. But attitudes toward mechanization development assistance and the policies and procedures of the past 40 years have not supported the introduction and sustained use of that technology and are not appropriate for the future.

The late Lester Pearson, Canadian statesman and chairman of the first FAO Conference in 1945, once commented: "... all politicians thought themselves experts on education and agriculture: the former because they had been schooled; the latter, because if not part of a personal past, farming was our heritage only a generation or two ago, and besides, it seems so easy to do, just scratch and plant and God does the rest - look how many illiterates have mastered the art... ".

If Mr Pearson were alive today, he might well be equally caustic about many development professionals, who have assumed authority for decisions on farm mechanization assistance to the developing world for four decades. All too frequently their claims of expertise in the field are based solely on their ability to drive a car. After all, they rationalize, a car is not unlike a tractor because both have rubber tires and an internal combustion engine.

It is such uninformed people, aided and abetted by politicians, who are responsible for the graveyards of discarded tractors, the warehouses full of plows too heavy to be pulled by local oxen and the thousands of spades distributed under the guise of appropriate technology - but impossible for barefoot farmers to use.

It is often despite the development professionals and politicians that countries, particularly in Asia, have slowly but steadily introduced and sustained the use of progressively more advanced forms of mechanized technology - with visible benefits in production and in the farmers' standard of living.