, Volume 45, Issue 8, pp 885–894 | Cite as

The sustainability of changes in agricultural technology: The carbon, economic and labour implications of mechanisation and synthetic fertiliser use

  • Alfred Gathorne-Hardy


New agricultural technologies bring multiple impacts which are hard to predict. Two changes taking place in Indian agriculture are a transition from bullocks to tractors and an associated replacement of manure with synthetic fertilisers. This paper uses primary data to model social, environmental and economic impacts of these transitions in South India. It compares ploughing by bullocks or tractors and the provision of nitrogen from manure or synthetic urea for irrigated rice from the greenhouse gas (GHG), economic and labour perspective. Tractors plough nine times faster than bullocks, use substantially less labour, with no significant difference in GHG emissions. Tractors are twice as costly as bullocks yet remain more popular to hire. The GHG emissions from manure-N paddy are 30 % higher than for urea-N, largely due to the organic matter in manure driving methane emissions. Labour use is significantly higher for manure, and the gender balance is more equal. Manure is substantially more expensive as a source of nutrients compared to synthetic nutrients, yet remains popular when available. This paper demonstrates the need to take a broad approach to analysing the sustainability impacts of new technologies, as trade-offs between different metrics are common.


Paddy Oxen India Draught animals Livelihoods Life cycle assessment LCA 



The author would like to thank the constructive comments from four anonymous reviewers. With thanks to the ESRC/Dfid Joint Scheme award RES-167-25-MTRUYG0; ES/1033768/1 for funding. The views expressed are those of the authors.


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Copyright information

© Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Oxford India Centre for Sustainable Development, Somerville CollegeUniversity of OxfordOxfordUK

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