Human Factors Of Farming And Food Production

Farming has not been the focus of much psychological research. There has been research on activities and tasks performed in farming as well as other contexts and on equipment design principles that would apply to farm and other types of equipment, but whereas one finds many articles in applied psychology and human factors journals dealing explicitly with manufacturing, aviation, office work, and a variety of other topics, there are few that deal in an equally focused way with farming.

Why is this? The practice of farming involves people interacting with machines, and with complicated machines at that. It is an essential occupation and it can be hazardous. One might think it would represent many opportunities for human factors and applied psychology work. Nevertheless, it seems to have been largely ignored by the field.

Perhaps one reason that more attention has not been given to farming is that it directly involves such a small fraction of the total labor force. However, farming is not only critical to the well-being of the global community because of the essential nature of what it produces, but it is the basis of a host of other industries (food processing and packaging, wholesale and retail selling, trucking, refrigeration, fertilizer and pesticide production). Farming is highly efficient in its use of human labor, but with respect to its use of natural resources the picture is quite different. I have already noted that agriculture accounts for about 70% of water usage worldwide. In regions where agriculture is a major activity, the percentage can be higher than that; about 85% of the water usage in California goes to agriculture, and in New Mexico the comparable figure is about 92% (Reisner, 1988-1989). Improvements in the technology for delivering water to plant roots that would minimize loss to evaporation, runoff, and delivery to areas containing no plants could have beneficial effects on the groundwater supply. Similarly, the development of techniques for delivering fertilizers and pesticides in less broadcast ways could reduce the severity of the undesirable side effects of these products on the environment.

Pesticides not only pose a threat to water supplies and, in the form of residues on produce, consumers of foodstuffs, but they can represent a major health hazard to agricultural workers (Coye, 1985; Environmental Protection Agency, 1990; Goldsmith, 1989; Vaughn, 1993a, 1993b). Apparently farm laborers who feel most dependent on farm work for their livelihood, in the sense of having few if any alternatives, are least likely to use available measures to protect themselves against exposure to the toxic chemicals they use (Vaughn, 1993a, 1993b).

Farming is an extremely important occupation. If it fails to do what it is intended to do, the world, or at least major parts of it, suffers from an inadequate food supply. If it succeeds in producing enough food, but does so in an inefficient way, we pay more than we should to eat. If, in meeting the food needs of the present generation, we deplete the capital of natural resources, such as water and tillable soil, we impose a burden on future generations that they should not have to bear.

Recognition that today's farming practices have serious implications for tomorrow's environment has led to the promotion of sustainable agriculture (Reganold, Papendick, & Parr, 1990). The term is used in the literature in a variety of ways, relating to such issues as the biophysical limits for agriculture, sustainability of agricultural output levels, supportability of population levels, capacity of agricultural producers to stay in business, and intergenerational equity (the meeting of present needs without creating inequitable burdens for future generations; Brklacich, Bryant, & Smit, 1991). These are complex issues, and more attention from psychologists to farming will not resolve them; such attention should not hurt, however, and it might help considerably in finding ways to make farming not only more efficient in the short run, but less environmentally costly and more sustainable for the long term.

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