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Technology in Agriculture


by Cedric B. Harold

The first technological revolution in human history is the revolution in agriculture. It had several components, from plant and animal breeding to knowledge of soil types to the invention of the plough and its combination with animal power. Its effect was to transform human societies from nomadic to settled aggregations. This led to villages, to towns, to cities. It also led to a large increase in agricultural output often with a reduction in the number of persons required in the field. Finally, since town people did not have to do agricultural labor, it led to specialisations and therefore new job opportunities.{{more}}

The next major revolution was the industrial revolution. We associate this with factories, steamships, railroads and a plethora of inventions which came later – cars, trucks, buses, airplanes, telephone, radio, computers, refrigerators, and so on. The computers produced in this phase generated the next revolution -the information revolution – and it is still in its infancy.

We must not lose sight

What we must not lose sight of (and it is, unfortunately, what most of our analysts and planners lose sight of) is that the industrial revolution churned out tractors, harvesters, and a host of machines developed especially to provide a boost to agricultural production. This phase is marked in the developed countries by huge surges in agricultural output and a marked reduction in the need for agricultural labor. This surplus labor went into the cities where it became absorbed in industry and commerce.

Mr. C I Martin writing in the March 31 issue of Searchlght mentions that “the contribution of agriculture to GDP ranges between 2 and 7 percent while that of services is between 67 and 75 percent”. What these figures hide is that the leading industrial country – the USA – is a major or the world’s largest producer of a host of primary agricultural products – milk, poultry, butter, eggs, oranges, soya, wheat, potatoes, maize, beef, oil – and where it is not, some other major industrial country is – Russia, China or Western Europe, for example.

As these countries move into the Information Age, we are going to see a further surge in their agricultural output using even fewer farmhands. The process has already started. Genetically modified plants, hydroponics, drip irrigation, RFID tags on plants and animals plus computers in the field – these and other developments are going to guarantee it. GDP in those countries will rise dramatically, and the proportion due to agriculture will continue to diminish, but not total agricultural output. It is almost like “Goodbye Malthus”, although, whether it will do the rest of the world any good remains to be seen.

New Technology

St. Kitts, Barbados and Jamaica were settled plantation colonies before the industrial revolution got underway. By the time SVG became British (Treaty of Paris, 1763), it had certainly begun. Caribbean plantation colonies had a certain signature defined by the oldest among them. It took a long time to break away from using the power of the wind, river and animals to grind cane and to turn to steam power. It would be almost another century before they would use railway tracks to transport the sugar cane from field to factory, or from factory to wharf. Even so, the most backward part of the plantation economy occurred in the plots given to the African laborers to grow provisions. These were the poorest yielding portions of land, they had limited time to devote to it, and no technological evolution took place in how they worked those plots. Hoe, fork, cutlass and donkey defined the technology – then and to this day.

Static labour movement

The result is that in the Caribbean we have static labour productivity on the farm, a net movement of people into towns (where many are idle, turn to crime, or irresponsibly reproduce the next generation without the obvious means of supporting them), diminished agricultural production, and a tendency to import most of the food we eat. We have become, in other words, no longer major producers of primary products, but the importer of same from, of all places, the industrialised countries. Accompanying this change we have a succession of political directorates who pay lip service to agriculture and who build the people’s hopes on technological revolutions allowing us to leapfrog agriculture, and more recently industry, into a future characterised by knowledge workers competing freely on the international market.