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Problems and possibilities of introducing appropriate technology

Doeke C. Faber
Centre for World Food Studies, Amsterdam, Netherlands

The traditional farmer
The failure of change and the role of government
Small farmers and appropriate technology
The role of science
Concluding remarks


In recent years, the alarming number of people who suffer from malnutrition has created an awareness of the ever-increasing importance of producing more food. The problem, however, is not solely one of an overall physical food shortage, but also one of the existence of extreme poverty where effective demand is non-existent. In other words, millions of people lack the purchasing power to satisfy even their most elementary needs, such as food, shelter, and health care. It is well known that this problem is most severe in the developing countries. To be even more specific, the most seriously affected people are typically the rural labourers, the landless, and the small traditional farmers. This group of people must subsist on the production of the small home plot and, more importantly, on the irregular, seasonal employment offered by the larger farmers. Because wages are usually a fixed share of the total production, it follows that in bad years, when yields are low, wages will also be low. Moreover, as mechanization progresses, less employment can be offered. Thus, even though total production may increase, the incomes of the landless and small farmers may decline. Therefore, one cannot ignore the burden of these people, as it appears that they will become the direct victims of the continuing development of the commercialized sector of agriculture, resulting in a worsening distribution of income within agriculture.

Yet there is another reason why they deserve our attention. For it is this very large group of peasants who will be the commercial farmers of tomorrow. It is the task of national governments to allocate sufficient resources for creating an environment in which the traditional peasant can employ himself and improve his standard of living through increased production and higher income. For such an effort to be successful, the limited ceiling of present expectations of the peasants must be raised. Governments must aid in this process by providing adequate extension services, reducing risk through guaranteed intervention prices, stimulating the development and introduction of appropriate technology, etc. Only by actively pursuing development and bringing about necessary changes will the landless and small farmers be provided an incentive to shed their traditional image.

This paper will briefly examine some of the problems that may hamper the rapid development of traditional agriculture. Even though everyone recognizes the need for change, governments and other institutions may not have provided the necessary prerequisites for the change to occur. Some of the prerequisites are discussed below. Finally, the role of research and technology development is examined, as is the need for a multidisciplinary approach to solve the "appropriate" technology problem.


The traditional farmer

Ted W. Schultz, the recent Nobel laureate in economics, once wrote, "The man who farms as his forefathers did cannot produce much food no matter how rich the land or how hard he works" (1). This statement represents the problem in a nutshell. It means that there is little hope for the hundreds of millions of peasants who try to scratch a living from the face of the earth with almost bare hands. Conversely, it implies that a farmer who has access to, and applies the most recent knowledge of, technology for agriculture or raising livestock produces an abundance of food even if the land is poor. In fact, what Schultz says is that the latter kind of farmer not only produces enough for his family, but for perhaps 50 more people. It goes without saying that these SO people, whose production effort has been replaced by that of the single farmer, can now be employed more productively elsewhere in the economy, The difference between traditional and commercial farming is that the former type of agriculture is based on factors of production that have been used by farmers for many generations, while the latter has typically applied new techniques and modern non-farm inputs as they became available.

As the traditional farmer will be the centre of our discussions, it will be useful to sketch his position against the background of perceived failure by those who have tried to bring about change. Schultz's statement, though bold, has been supported by empirical evidence (1, ch. 6). It is contended that the traditional farmer cannot, within the means available to him, increase his production. However, it is not only the means available, but also the frame of mind the traditional farmer is in. For many generations the farmer has perceived his future possibilities to be very limited, and at times his expectations appeared to vanish into a bottomless pit. For the peasant to be successful in altering the courses of action open to him, his level of expectations must be raised. But, unless he has a sufficient desire to improve his standard of living by exerting himself, he cannot be expected to show much interest in applying new techniques or modern inputs. To break this vicious circle an extensive education and extension programme must be launched to lay out clearly the opportunities open to him. However, not all depends on future expectations.

For any entrepreneur to apply new methods or inputs, especially something radiacally different from the tried and trusted, a number of ancillary conditions must be fulfilled. For the situation of the traditional farmer, Schultz has postulated at least four reasons that may point to a lack of success in the efforts to modernize traditional agriculture (4).

  1. Extension programmes as designed in the 1950s and 1960s have failed because they were based on the assumption that peasant farmers were inefficient. It was noted earlier that the traditional farmer is not inefficient but that he merely labours under the restraints of traditional agriculture.
  2. Extension education and credit programmes were often based on the assumption that the traditional farmer or peasant did not save and invest enough, nor did he use the optimum amount of credit. The truth, however, is that there were insufficient opportunities to invest within the confines of traditional agriculture.
  3. New agricultural programmes have attempted to induce farmers to use new agricultural techniques or apply modern inputs, only to learn that these modern gadgets were simply not profitable or productive enough to make it worthwhile for the farmer to use them.
  4. In most instances where farmers do not respond to applying modern inputs to raise production, no really profitable or rewarding new agricultural inputs have been developed, produced, or supplied cheaply enough and at the right time to make it worthwhile. This lack of incentive may well be the main cause of the problems currently experienced by the traditional farmers in the developing countries. Fortunately, a few success stories can be mentioned: Mexico, South Korea, Taiwan, and India. These cases are sufficiently known and we will not refer to them further.


The failure of change and the role of government

The peasant as defined above has not been converted into a commercial entrepreneur even after 30 years of intensive effort and millions of dollars. This should quickly drive home the point that the conversion process is not one of money and time alone. Indeed, those two conditions may be necessary, but they are not sufficient. The other condition that must be fulfilled is that the process of change must be understood by the "changers." This process will only acquire momentum if an environment has been created in which the process can sustain itself.

Governments have had a significant role in frustrating the development effort. To speed the process of change, governments have often taken over the job of entrepreneurship and have been "far from efficient" in doing so (5). Schultz goes on to say that" government seriously constrains the entrepreneurship of farmers and farm housewives, thereby reducing the efficiency of agriculture and the standard of living of farm families" (5). To transform traditional agriculture into a modernized agricultural sector, adjustments at all levels within the enterprise are called for to take full advantage of new and better opportunities. Two conditions must be satisfied before this can be realized: (a) the decision-making process must remain on the farm; (b) governments must create a friendly environment for change.

The first condition should not cause unsurmountable problems. The decision-making process belongs to the individual owner of resources. Each decision-maker will, in his environment and within his perceived expectation, make decisions as to how to allocate his resources. He will unknowingly, but almost perfectly, equate the marginal value of products from the resource with the marginal cost of the resource. It is, however, the second condition that requires change. One may wonder why today we can only point to a few success stories where economic change has brought about increased agricultural productivity and improved farm well-being; for example, the wheat farmers in Mexico and India, or the rice farmers in South Korea, Japan, or Taiwan. Unfortunately, such stories remain very rare, because governments neglect to create an environment conducive to change. The small peasant is not to blame, he does not resist change or desist from work, but he merely does not find the "alternatives" among his possibilities. There is no adequate incentive for him to take a risk.

Government policy-makers must base their decisions and policies on the behaviour of farmers. Note that the subsistence farmer may react differently from commercial farmers to economic stimulants. It is therefore advisable to devise a policy for agriculture that differentiates between beneficiaries in matters such as subsidy and tax policies, input prices differences, or quantity allocations. Farmers, in making decisions about allocating resources, etc., calculate expected cost (including their measure of risk) and expected returns. Weighing one against the other results in economic incentive. The optimum economic incentive then brings about optimum allocation of resources, resulting in maximum production that will clear the market at prices that take the best advantage of consumer demand (5). The question remains, why does government treat agriculture as it does? There are many arguments to answer this question. To mention a few:

  1. Urban masses, although numerically a minority, are much better organized and have secured much more political clout than have their rural counterparts.
  2. Agriculture is usually considered a backward sector. It is only looked upon as a useful labour and food resource.
  3. Primary agricultural export products are usually subject to very erratic price behaviour, causing problems with the balance of payments. Many developing countries have chosen the industrialization model, where industrialization (really urban development) will act as the flywheel for overall development. Low food prices would be a requirement for low wages, and agriculture can supply food at low prices because of the "excess" labour in the rural sector.

These arguments should never be a reason to undervalue agriculture as is now the case. They will only be counterproductive in the long run.


Small farmers and appropriate technology

Since the 1960s, technology has made a great impact on the economic growth process, Especially in the developing countries, newly developed knowledge and the application of new techniques have clearly benefited various sectors of their economies. In particular, improvements have come from the development of hybrid seeds, biocides, inorganic fertilizers, and better communication systems.

However, during the 1970s there was a growing concern about the "apparent incongruities between the goals of the developing countries, their labour supply conditions and other resource endowments, and the technologies these countries were importing" (6). One can distinguish between new and old technologies by looking, for example, at the amount of labour used per unit of output, or the amount or quality of input per unit of output (e.g., hybrid seed). The introduction of some technologies produces adverse effects for a community, region, or country. For example, a new technology may have adverse consequences for the rate of employment, or, alternatively, it may affect the socio-economic relations within a community. The consequences of technological change are therefore not always positive.

It can easily be shown that a technology that supplants labourers directly affects the welfare of the landless and traditional farmer. Less employment means less income and results in the desolate situation of poverty, hunger, and malnutrition. Moreover, the socio-economic system as a whole is affected by such a development. The interdependencies between the landless and small farmers on one side and the larger, commercial farmers on the other are disturbed. No longer does the large farmer depend on labour supplied by the landless, and thus no longer can the landless labourer depend on work (food) provided by the larger farmer. Economically such a situation makes no sense, for as long as there is "surplus" labour, its opportunity cost is zero, which translates into very low wages. Yet farmers do mechanize because of management and hiring problems or because of time constraints, or for other noneconomic reasons. The consequences of a disturbed socio-economic system cannot always be foreseen. Policy-makers should pay close attention to the possible side effects of newly introduced changes. There is no way to escape the fact that every new technology has within it the inherent danger of disturbing a stable socio-economic structure. This may, however, not always be a reason not to go ahead with planned development.

So far, we have interpreted "change" as either higher expectations or higher output prices, etc. Given the fact that most traditional farmers have very little chance to increase the area under cultivation (especially in South-East Asia), another opportunity for increasing production is to raise yields, assuming that the government provides the necessary incentive. This yield-increasing technology can be realized by re-evaluating the plant production process. Farmers must turn their attention to on farm inputs rather than non-farm inputs (e.g., fertilizer, pesticides, etc.). A number of new methods have been developed to increase production in ways that permit the traditional farmer to work within the means available to him; for instance using legumes as an inter-row crop, better use of cow dung, improved management skill, new tillage techniques to make available more of the soil nutrients, etc. In this manner the farmer will realize higher yields and thus more revenue, without incurring large costs or drastically different techniques.

If change can be brought about in this manner, then we have made a case for different technologies for various farm sizes or structures. Appropriate technology means just this: appropriate not only in terms of advancement, but also in terms of feasibility (or acceptance) within the target group, or in terms of working on constraints that appear to be most limiting in a given situation.

Unfortunately, appropriate technology as defined above is not yet recognized as a possible solution to the problem. The National Research Council (6) states that "there is little evidence to suggest that major research efforts to find efficient 'intermediate' technologies for small-scale village-level production would either be markedly successful or contribute substantially to development." It could be argued that this statement only holds if total production must be increased regardless of the producer. More likely, however, "intermediate" technologies have been applied or even developed on such a small scale that no meaningful statement can be made about them. The gist of this paper is that, in the first place, the welfare of the landless and traditional peasants must be improved, not necessarily the welfare of all farmers. Indeed, the primary goal is to increase incomes for the lowest farm-income groups, and appropriate technology must be made available to them.


The role of science

In developing and introducing new technologies, explicit decisions have been taken by some individuals, groups, or governments - decisions such as technologies for what, for whom, and where. Such decisions often come about after a need is recognized. Thus, once it is realized that it is necessary to improve the overall food situation, but in particular the situation of landless labourers and the peasants, research interests are directed to this problem by means of allocating funds.

Unfortunately, so far very little has been done in the area of agricultural technology development at the village level. A village technology can be defined as one that complements the growing of crops. As holdings are of different sizes and farmers have different quantities of resources available to them, different factor input combinations will be Used, such as the man/land ratio or man/capital ratio. Therefore, again, a case can be made for a different technology for different sized farms. It must be stressed, however, that by developing tailor-made village technologies, dynamic relationships between the social classes must be understood and taken into account if the exercise is to be meaningful. Murray has found that a village properly administered has a much higher chance of succeeding in undertaking new projects, even though it may be poorly endowed, than a village that experiences social disruptions (3).

Also, no research effort, no matter how well designed and carried out, will be spared a limited life if the results are conceived as unsatisfactory by those who finally apply a new technology. It is for this reason that increasingly projects are being developed by multidisciplinary teams of researchers, including engineers and social scientists.

Finally, a last remark about the role of government. To the degree that agriculture or particular crops are under-valued by governments, it is of direct consequence for the amount of research funds directed toward those crops or that sector. Because, as with all economic projects, the rate of return is all-important, funds will always be channelled into the most profitable enterprises.


Concluding remarks

It is clear from present worldwide efforts that agriculture needs to boost its output to at least abate the hunger and malnutrition experienced by millions of people. By directing efforts toward the traditional farmers and landless labourers, two problems could be solved at the same time.



1. T.W. Schultz, Transforming Traditional Agriculture (Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn. USA, 1964).

2. K. Nair, Blossoms in the Dust (Duckworth Ltd., London, 1961), p. 190.

3. C. A. Murray, A Behavioural Study of Rural Modernization: Social and Economic Change in Thai Villages (Praeger Publishers, London, 1977), p, 101.

4. T.W. Schultz, "Economic Growth from Traditional Agriculture," chap. 1 in T. Shukla, ea., Economics of Underdeveloped Agriculture (Vora and Co., Ltd., Publishers, Bombay, India, 1 969).

5. T.W. Schultz, "Economics and Politics in Agriculture," chap, 1 in T.W. Schultz, ea., Distortions of Agricultural lncentives (Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Ind., USA, 1978).

6. National Research Council, Appropriate Technologies for Developing Countries (National Academy of Sciences, Washington, D.C., USA, 1977), p. vii.


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