Under Nourished: Exerting More Calories Than Consumed

ZambiaFarmerOptOne concern expressed in this website is that smallholder farmers are taking an unexpectedly long time to complete basic crop establishment, with a trickle down impact on subsequent field operations and eventual yield potentials and quality. Typically it takes smallholders approximately eight weeks to complete their crop establishment compared to a projected maximum of four weeks. Much of the basic crop establishment requires extensive manual labor, particularly when limited to working with hoes. This is for a group of people reported to produce only a six month food supply. A supply that will start running out just as the dry season ends and heavy manual labor for the next crop season begins. The question then comes, is the calories required to meet manual labor needed for crop establishment exceeding the calories being consumed? If not, what is the impact of undernourishment on future crop production, and the ability of the farmers to utilize production technology intended for their benefit. The estimate is that it takes 2000 cal just to sustain a person for a day, plus some 220 cal/hr additional for work depending on the task, for a Total Calorie Requirement of nearly 4000 cal.

Most likely within a smallholder community there may be only a couple possibilities. Some might find employment as casual laborers for another farmer that will offer an in-kind payment of a sack of maize or rice that the hungry farmers can consume while working on their fields. The second option would be to simply eat less to prolong the limited available food. This will quickly result in becoming fatigued early in the day and having to return home or to the village to recover. Are there other possibilities? In both cases the hungry farmers’ field activities are delayed and with that the ability to adopt time sensitive production recommendations promoted for their benefit including those promoted as part of value chain projects. Ultimately this will substantially reduce the yield potential.

This is often easily visible by noting considerably more field activity in the mornings than afternoons. Why is this, considering the extensive amount of work needing attention, and a very well understood declining production function for delays?

If people are seen relaxing around a village during the afternoon, it is often thought to be from limited motivation. Could it also be simply exhaustion and recuperating from not having consumed sufficient calories for a full work day? From casual observation can this be separated? Given the continued fieldwork requirements, the loss of yield potential, and risk that brings to food security, which is more logical and more likely? Are delays in field work the result of hunger and exhaustion or risk aversion?

A comparison of the calories consumed and labor exerted should make an interesting study with considerable ramification. If it is correct that farmers are exerting more energy than they are consuming, there would be a major justification for promoting access to contract mechanization so the farmers can expedite their crop establishment and bring it more in line with production recommendations. It is noted that most of the basic land preparation for smallholders in Egypt, Pakistan, and Iraq is done by individually owned private contract tractors as part of the community service providers. There is also an increasing demand for contract tillage in rural Africa such as in Zambia and Tanzania.

The analysis could also determine if it is physically possible for a smallholder family to dig themselves out of poverty if only working with hoes, or will the time taken complete crop establishment and other labor consuming crop management activities reduce the potential yield below what will allow them to meet food security requirements.

Last Revised: 29 March 2010 .

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