Despite the unconscious predisposition among many development analysts to regard technology as relating mainly to industry, technological factors are equally important in agriculture – although they impinge in rather different ways. This is because: (a) agricultural production is inherently more unstable and location-specific than industry, in that it takes place within the context of natural (biological) systems that continuously evolve over space and time; (b) there is a weakness in the market in allocating technological resources efficiently for the small-scale, heterogeneous type of agriculture typical of most developing countries. For these reasons, investment of resources designed to upgrade the technological level of agriculture (particularly for the poor farmer) has traditionally been seen as the business of the public sector, with research being conducted in centralized institutes and its results passed on to the farmer by means of a network of extension agencies.
In the 1970s, the predominant mode of thinking was the top-down or transfer-of-technology model. New technology would come through transfer of good practices from the developed countries, with diffusion taking place through community development programmes. Diffusion was achieved through the establishment of a number of research institutions, initially through private and bilateral aid and later with multilateral aid, and the transfer-of-technology model became the correct institutional mode for agricultural development. The rationale for this approach was the widespread view that developing country agriculture was technologically primitive and that the rapid population growth rates meant a need for new technology. Similarly it was thought that the problem was not so much one of inefficient agronomic practice as of technology that needed upgrading. At the same time, plant breeders started applying plant characteristics previously confined to temperate food crops – hybrid vigour and dwarfing – to crops grown in tropical countries. The high-yielding varieties that emerged became the basis of what is now known as the Green Revolution.
The Green Revolution is an example of top-down technology transfer, since the impetus came from two international agricultural research centres (forming the basis of the current CGIAR network) rather than the developing countries themselves. Production technologies and varieties for mandated crops and geographical regions were developed in these centres and subsequently passed on to the national agricultural research systems for applied research and final transfer to farmers. Although initially the failure to benefit from modern varieties was thought to be due to ignorance of smaller farmers, later analysis suggests that high-yielding varieties were incompatible with prevailing socio-economic conditions and were only suitable under a specific set of favourable conditions. The centralized nature of the research institutes involved in development and diffusion of the technology did not allow feedback from farmers. Better understanding of the issues derived from the green revolution has led to a growing emphasis on agriculture as a complex dynamic system.
There is a growing realization that technological capacity-building in agriculture, if it is to be successful, should take place as close as possible to agriculture's enterprise equivalent, the farm. Two alternatives to the transfer-of-technology model are the "farming systems research" (FSR) and the "farmer-first-and-last" (FFL) models. The former has emerged mainly from the international agricultural research centres and relies on working with farmers to identify problems. It is intended to involve them to varying degrees in a process of change which takes place wholly or partly on the farm. However, it can be argued that farmer's involvement renders integration into mainstream agricultural research extremely difficult, because of the hierarchical nature of the latter. This has led to the farmer-first-and-last approach, more radical in that it assigns a central role to farmer-generated knowledge. There are many examples of farmers' innovation and their ability to manage complex environments in a sustainable fashion. However, despite the recognition of the value of farmer-generated knowledge, the full nature of this knowledge system, its desired institutional focus, and the extent to which it can contribute to conventional agricultural research systems are issues which are not fully resolved and it is unclear how a farmers' knowledge system would cope with increasingly new agricultural technology.
Rural programmes such as workshops, science fairs and science quizzes and technology fairs are being used in many countries. The information reaches parents through their children. The mass communications media and agricultural fairs also help get the word out to farmers.
The Chapshala and Agricultural Tools Research Centre on the Surichi Campus in Gujarat, India is a self-supporting technology centre developing agricultural technologies such as hand tools which reduce physical strain while increasing production, including solar cookers and biogas plants. Several hundred artisans have been trained by a number of organizations to produce these technologies for the village market, providing an effective method for farmers to gain access to new technologies and also to get the relevant services to make use of these technologies.
The gulf that exists between the village and the urban centres is seen in the long time it takes for new technological applications to make their way to small farmers. This is often the case even when the source of technological innovations is no further than the district centre.
Modern strategies have often been a rather crude attempt to deal with a sophisticated system of resource management. If science is to provide technology for these complex systems there must be greater understanding of them.