[OPE-L] Feeding the World: An Economic History of Agriculture, 1800-2000 Federico, Giovanni

From: Rakesh Bhandari (bhandari@BERKELEY.EDU)
Date: Fri Mar 24 2006 - 03:19:17 EST

Seems to be (in part) an argument for the primacy of
the forces of production.
Feeding the World: An Economic History of Agriculture, 1800-2000
Federico, Giovanni

Published by EH.NET (March 2006)

Giovanni Federico, Feeding the World: An Economic History of
Agriculture, 1800-2000. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press,
2005. xiv + 388 pp. $45 (cloth), ISBN: 0-691-12051-X.
Reviewed for EH.NET by Bruce Gardner, Department of Agricultural and
Resource Economics, University of Maryland.
Feeding the World depicts the history of world agriculture since 1800
as an outstanding success story. The goal of the book is to explain
how this feat was achieved.
After two brief chapters setting the stage and describing the
distinctive features of agriculture, the book consists of three
chapters (3-5) that lay out the facts as we know them (via
statistics) followed by four chapters (6-9) that investigate the
technological and institutional context in which agriculture
developed as it has. The tenth and final chapter provides a synthesis
of the facts and trends, and the pros and cons of some alternative
explanations of them in the context of overall economic growth.
The events that call for explanation, and that warrant the label of
success story, are that since 1800 the world's population has grown
from roughly 1 billion to 6.5 billion people, while food production
has not only kept up but enabled increasing per capita food
consumption, and with a trend toward decreasing prices of food
relative to other goods at least since 1850. These outcomes can be
called a success not only on their own terms but especially in view
of the Malthusian pessimism of intelligent observers not only circa
1800 but at many junctures between then and now when the world's
food-supply good fortune was thought to be at risk of ending.
The statistical chapters cover output, prices, and trade (chapter 3),
inputs (chapter 4), and productivity (chapter 5). The problems facing
numerical estimates of these quantities and their rates of change
over time are given a full and sensitive discussion. What is most
striking though is the audacious follow-up. Confrontation with these
difficulties leads not to a retreat from quantification but a series
of tables that gives annual rates of change going far back into the
nineteenth century for a great number of individual countries as well
as regional and world aggregates. A nice example of the author's
creative ambition is his time series chart (Graph 3.2) of world trade
in agricultural and total goods, 1850 to 2000. He splices estimates
from four disparate sources to show clearly the huge expansion of
agricultural trade over the period (trade volume in 2000 being 75
times the 1850 level), the even faster growth of nonagricultural
trade since 1950 (but not before then), and the big departure from
the overall trend of strong growth between the outbreak of World War
I and the end of World War II.
The culmination of the book's statistical efforts is a set of
estimates of total factor productivity (TFP) growth in agriculture.
TFP growth is found to be the principal source of output growth in
the industrial countries and an important source in the
less-developed world. TFP growth has been substantial in most
countries especially in the twentieth century, and since 1950 has
grown faster in agriculture than in manufacturing, belying the idea
of agriculture as stagnant and backward.
Chapter 6 opens the discussion of what has caused increases in TFP.
Two main sources are considered: increases in the efficiency of
resource use with given technological capabilities, and improvements
in technology. Technological change is the focus of Chapter 6, which
in 32 well-informed and closely reasoned pages highlights the
findings and controversies of the large literature on both the
sources of invention and the adoption of technology by farmers.
Chapters 7 through 9 address the characteristics of an economy that
foster, or frustrate, the development and adoption of TFP-raising
technology. Chapter 7 focuses on property rights and the economic
organization of farming -- size of farms, land tenure, cooperative
enterprise. Chapter 8 goes into more detail on the institutions that
govern property ownership and exchange, but does not assign a clear
causal role to any of them as sources of productivity growth. Chapter
9 is devoted to agricultural policies around the world. A fundamental
transformation in policies is seen, from "benign neglect" before the
1930s to a growing agenda of governmental regulation after. This
agenda of regulation and support, while politically successful, is
concluded not only to have failed to contribute to TFP growth, but to
have imposed net burdens on the economies that implemented the
Chapter 10 summarizes the results of the book in fifteen "stylized
facts." The ones most centrally related to the goal of the book are
that agricultural output grew mainly due to increases in inputs in
the nineteenth century and TFP growth in the twentieth, and that
publicly-funded research and extension have played a major role in
this growth. An implication of the brief (two-page) summary
discussion is that technological change is in the driver's seat, and
that other factors have been important only insofar as they fostered
or hindered new technology being improved and implemented on farms.
And, while there have been notable developments in property rights,
land ownership, the role of family farms, product and input markets,
and agricultural policies, the author is in the end unwilling to
credit developments in any of these areas as important causal factors
in long-term agricultural output or TFP growth, apart from the
disasters created by attempts to collectivize agriculture in the
Soviet Union and China.
The generalization offered about institutions is that they "have
successfully adjusted to the needs of technical progress" (p. 222).
It is surprising to find such a modest bottom-line role for
institutional change as a causal agent. Such a role underlies the
continuing efforts of the World Bank and others to use property
rights, markets, and related institutions as key long-term policy
levers to promote growth. I take the author's reticence to join the
bandwagon as derived from the fact that the long-term trends the book
focuses on simply do not permit sorting out causes from effects.
Still, it is notable that the discussion ends up treating
institutional change as more effect than cause. Could it be that
institutional reforms have less independent force as a source of
economic growth than current opinion sees them as having? I would
like to see the author's conclusions on this matter in more detail,
however tentative that discussion would have to be. In the case with
which I am most familiar, the United States, it is wrong to summarize
the governmental role as benign neglect before 1930. George
Washington, in his 1796 annual address to Congress, noted that
institutions for promoting agriculture grow up "supported by the
public purse; and to what object can it be dedicated with greater
propriety?" (quoted in W.L. Wanlass, "The U.S. Department of
Agriculture," in Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and
Political Science, 1920). U.S. land-grant universities were provided
substantial federal support starting with the Morrill Act of 1862,
and both federal and state-level support for agricultural education
and technical assistance and research have been important ever since.
For decades before 1930 waterways, irrigation, drainage, and other
infrastructure were subsidized, at times to a fault. The evidence
that these activities and investment made a difference in U.S. TFP
growth is reasonably solid.
Most of Chapter 10 is devoted not to conclusions from the earlier
chapters but rather to a discussion of the role of agriculture in
general economic growth. The discussion of this difficult issue is
knowledgeable and judicious and worth having, but has a somewhat
tacked-on feel given the stated purpose of the book.
The author, Giovanni Federico, is Professor of Economic History at
the European University Institute of Florence, Italy. He writes in
the style and substance of a modern economic historian, that is,
making cogent use of the tools of economic theory and empirical
practice. His writing is exceptionally clear and jargon-free. His
scholarship is wide-ranging and thorough and avoids superficiality.
He is an adventurous scholar. While fully cognizant of the
limitations of his data, he goes ahead anyway and quantifies his best
judgments and pushes as far as possible with their implications. He
at times likely pushes further than the data will go, but the sources
of his conclusions are transparent so if you want to challenge him
you know what you have to do.
Federico takes seriously the arguments of historians who are not
imbued with an economist's outlook, and when he finds fault with
positions taken in the literature, he does so in a gentlemanly but
firm way. On contentious topics, such as the induced innovation
hypothesis, he is sensible and fair to all sides. Though he would not
claim to have written the final word on either the measurement of
agricultural growth or the explanation of its causes, Federico's work
is an important contribution to our knowledge of the facts and their
Bruce Gardner is Professor in the Department of Agricultural and
Resource Economics at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is
author of American Agriculture in the Twentieth Century: How It
Flourished and What It Cost, Harvard University Press (2002).

Subject : A
Geographic : 0
Time Period : 7, 8, 9
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Citation: Bruce Gardner, "Review of Giovanni Federico Feeding the
World: An Economic History of Agriculture, 1800-2000" Economic
History Services, Mar 14, 2006, URL :

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