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Technology for the Small Farmers
D. Gee-Clough
Division of Agricultural and Food Engineering,
Asian Institute of Technology,
P.O. Box 2754, Bangkok, Thailand, 1985-07-01

Introduction

If present population growth rates continue, there will be roughly twice as many Asians alive in 25 years time as there are today. With the exception of countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia, most of the good arable land in the region is already in use. Therefore, the only possible way to feed this huge population is by intensification of agricultural production. Either more crops per year must be grown, or the yield of existing crops must be increased. Although impressive gains in food production have been registered in the region in the last two decades, there will not be enough to avert a very serious situation by the end of the century if present policies re continued. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has estimated that unless decisive action is taken, the number of seriously undernourished people in the Far East will rise from about 300 million in 1975 to more than 400 million in 2000. The potential to avert this situation exists in abundance in the region. Production can be increased many times over, but only when water supply and control are improved, and when fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, and suitable farm machinery, are made available to the average farmer. Both governments and farmers have to invest more money into farming, for this to be made possible: Governments must provide large infrastructure objects such as dams, irrigation and drainage structures, and the farmers must use more inputs such as fertilizer and suitable machinery. However, at the moment, many countries in the region are not helping this to happen, since they are making it virtually impossible for the average farmer to buy the necessary inputs.

Affordable Technology

Probably no two words in the English language have been so badly misused in the last decade as "Appropriate Technology". This has steadily come to mean technology which is simple and in many cases third-rate. I believe that the time has come for a different approach. Let us first see what the farmer can now afford, estimate whether this is adequate for requirements and, if not, what is required to provide him with the necessary technology. The technology in use in the region today varies enormously, ranging from countries such as Japan where agriculture is almost completely mechanized, to countries such as Bangladesh and Nepal where the technology in use is still quite primitive.

When looking at relative costs of agricultural inputs in different parts of the region, one can translate them all into one currency such as US$ and compare them. However this does not give an accurate picture of what the farmer can afford, since the farmer's currency is the crop he grows and which he must sell to obtain the money to make such purchases. Rice is by far the most important crop of the region, indeed is the most important food grain in the world. It is useful, therefore, to cost inputs not in dollars or rupees or pesos or baht, but in how many metric tons of rice a farmer must sell to buy these inputs. Fig. 1(971) shows such a costing for selected countries in the region. Using figures from the Asian Productivity Organization, it shows how many metric tons of paddy a farmer must sell in different countries in order to be able to buy a small power tiller. A huge variation is apparent from country to country. In Japan, a farmer needs to sell only one mt of paddy to buy a power tiller. In Indonesia, the figure shoots up to 28 mt. In practical terms, this means that it is 28 times more difficult for an Indonesian farmer to buy a power tiller than a Japanese farmer. Using figures from Herdt and Palacpac, Fig. 2(961) shows how many kilograms of paddy must be sold by farmers in different countries to buy one kilogram of nitrogen fertilizer. Again a huge variation from country to country is seen. A Japanese farmer has to sell only 0.5 kg of paddy to buy 1 kg of nitrogen fertilizer, while his Thai counterpart has to sell 4 1/2 kg i.e. fertilizer is 9 times more expensive for Thai farmers than it is for Japanese farmers. Small wonder, then, that fertilizer use in Thailand is one of the lowest in Asia.

One can take the calculations one stage further. Again using data from the Asian Productivity Organization, Fig. 3(973) shows, for a farmer in different countries on the average sized farm in that country, with an average paddy yield, how many complete crops of paddy must be sold to purchase a 6kW power tiller.

In Japan the figure is 0.1, in Indonesia 9.7, in India 7.1, in Nepal 7.7. The consequences of this are shown in Fig. 4(933). Fig. 4(933) is virtually an inverse of Fig. 3(973). In those countries where power tillers are, in real terms to the farmer, affordable, then quite large numbers are in active use. However which farmer, anywhere in the world, can find someone to mortgage him for between 7 and 10 years complete income?

As stated in the Introduction, there is a very strong requirement for increased food production in Asia over the next 25 years. Fig. 5(953), again using data from Ref. 2, shows the average paddy yield in selected Asian countries as a function of the price paid to farmers. Fig. 5(953) shows two things; it shows the potential for increased food production in this region, and it also shows that this potential will not be realized unless farmers are given the income, by way of higher food prices, to be able to intensify food production.

Indeed I would go so far as to say that, in many cases, the major problem in agriculture in Asia today is not a technological one at all. A great deal of suitable technology already exists in the region, and is being used in some countries. Some, like the Thai power tillers, the `Turtle' tillers from the Philippines, and the Chinese reaper-windrowers and rice transplanting machines, have been developed inside the region itself. The main problem is not the technology available, it is that policies of cheap food prices make it impossible for the average farmer in many countries to avail himself of this technology.

Conclusion

Food production in Asia can be increased to meet the projected demand over the next 25 years. However, attitudes to food pricing will have to change if this is to be made possible. This is of course a highly charged political issue. The urban elite in many countries will be strongly opposed to paying more for their food. The alternative, however, is that Asian may be seriously short of food in the near future. The Asian farmer has shown that he is perfectly capable of increasing production up to the required levels. However, he must intensify production to be able to do this. If his income is not large enough to afford the necessary inputs, then all his skill and determination will count for nothing.

More than 60 years ago, when the Soviet Union started its transition from a predo-minantly rural society to the highly sophisticated society it is today, industrial development was made a top priority and agriculture was made to finance industrial development. The result is that even today, the Soviety Union cannot adequately feed its own population, and most years must import millions of tons of grain to meet its food requirements. It would be foolish for the emerging nations of Asia to repeat that mistake. Indeed it would be more than foolish, it would be tragic.

References

  • Anon. 1981. Agriculture: Toward 2000. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome, Italy.
  • Anon. 1983. Farm Mechanization in Asia. Asian Productivity Organization, Tokyo, Japan.
  • Herdt, R.W., Palacpac, A.C. 1983. World Rice Facts and Trends. International Rice Research Institute, Los Banos, Philippines.

Discussion

  • Q. (Kavi Chutikul). Thank you for your very clear statement of the problem. What can we do to solve it?
  • A. Farmers' organization in Thailand have made many representations to the Government about prices. If farmers' organizations could be strengthened, this would be most effective. In my own country, Great Britain, the National Farmers' Union is a very powerful and effective organization, which lobbies Parliament and influential people to persuade them to the farmers' point of view. As long as five million farmers have five million points of view, nothing can be done. However, if they speak with one voice, they are very influential. Historically, it has been difficult for farmers to organize, but very effective when they do.
  • Q. (Rosita Rose). With regard to farm mechanization, I should like to ask to what extent farm machinery has displaced farm labor and led to unemployment among rural workers, who as a result have had to leave their farms. Furthermore, in Central Luzon we have found that many farmers who have adopted power tillers would like to go back to ploughing by water buffalo, but find it difficult to do so. They find that the cost of oil and spare parts is now so high that machinery is no longer economical, but often production loans and access to irrigation water depend on the adoption of farm machinery.
  • A. The question of whether agricultural machinery is labor displacing or not depends on how mechanizations is carried out. Some studies indicate that it is labor displacing, others indicate the opposite. In Northern India, for example, mechanization has increased production so much that it has increased the labor demand. The wrong kind of machine, introduced at the wrong time, may have the opposite effect. For example, it would be disastrous to introduce the combine harvester at this time into the Philippines.
  • The increase in the price of oil in the 1970's did not slow down the growth rate of sales of agricultural machinery in Asia. These sales took place for a reason _ farmers must have good reason to buy machinery.
  • Q. You say that one way of enabling the farmer to buy more farm inputs is to raise food prices. However, if consumers have to pay more for rice, Businessmen will have to charge more for inputs.
  • A. This is the old inflation argument, but if there is a strong demand for increased production, some change has to take place. If there is no price increase, rice yields will stay at their present level of c.2 mt/ha.
  • In Europe after the Second World War, there was widespread destruction and fear of famine. The Common Agricultural Policy of the EEC was set up to stimulate agricultural production through pricing policies. This was so successful that there are now big surpluses.

Index of Images

Figure 1 MT of Paddy Which Must Be Sold in Different Asian Countries to Buy a Small Power Tiller

Figure 1 MT of Paddy Which Must Be Sold in Different Asian Countries to Buy a Small Power Tiller

Figure 2 Kilograms of Paddy Rice Which Must Be Sold to Buy One Kilogram of Nitrogen Fertilizer

Figure 2 Kilograms of Paddy Rice Which Must Be Sold to Buy One Kilogram of Nitrogen Fertilizer

Figure 3 Number of Complete Crops of Paddy from Average Sized Farm with Average Yield to Buy a Smal Power Tiller

Figure 3 Number of Complete Crops of Paddy from Average Sized Farm with Average Yield to Buy a Smal Power Tiller

Figure 4 Kilograms of Paddy Rice Which Must Be Sold to Buy One Kilogram of Nitrogen Fertilizer

Figure 4 Kilograms of Paddy Rice Which Must Be Sold to Buy One Kilogram of Nitrogen Fertilizer

Figure 5 Average Yield of Paddy As a Function of Price Paid to Farmers (1981 Prices)

Figure 5 Average Yield of Paddy As a Function of Price Paid to Farmers (1981 Prices)

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