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Agriculture and Economic Development in Europe since 1870

Author(s):Lains, Pedro
Pinella, Vincente
Reviewer(s):Grantham, George

Published by EH.NET (January 2010)

Pedro Lains and Vincente Pinella, editors, Agriculture and Economic Development in Europe since 1870. London: Routledge, 2009. xviii + 407 pp. $40 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-415-42487-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by George Grantham, Department of Economics, McGill University.

The seven decades leading up to World War II represent a distinct epoch in Europe?s long agricultural history as a transitional phase between late organic agriculture based on farm-produced inputs and the modern industrial forms that since 1960 have transformed western agriculture out of all recognition. Despite intervals of stagnation (and in war-torn economies contraction) productivity rose two to three times faster than in pre-industrial times. With the exception of Britain, whose precocious industrialization prior to the transport revolution provoked industrial hyper-specialization, Europe as a whole nevertheless remained fundamentally agricultural. In industrially advanced economies agriculture occupied a quarter to a third of the work force; on the backward periphery the proportion was half to four-fifths into the 1950s. Certain features of the agricultural history of this period are well-known: the politics of agricultural protection has been exhaustively studied, as have institutional innovations like the Danish cooperatives and German land banks. For advanced countries the statistical record is fairly complete. The main gap in our quantitative knowledge concerns eastern and southeastern Europe, where boundary changes and massive displacement of rural population make it difficult to collate and interpret the statistical record, and the Iberian peninsula, where scholars were late to mine the rich veins of data deposited in Spanish and Portuguese archives. The result is that until recently, it has been difficult to get an idea of the evolution of European agriculture as a whole.

The present work takes a big step in that direction. It consists of twelve country studies ranging from Portugal to Poland and Sweden to Turkey preceded by three fine introductory essays by Lains and Pinella, Olmstead and Rhode, and Broadberry that set out the methodological and historical issues raised by the collection, and in Broadberry?s essay, estimate the effect on aggregate productivity of agriculture?s declining share of the work force. The editors are to be congratulated for having gotten contributors to observe a common format, which helps bring out the common threads in a fascinating tapestry of national experiences. The format is a set of questions formulated by development economists in the 1960s to measure the effect of agricultural change on developing economies. To what extent did agriculture ?release? labor and capital to modern sectors? In what measure did agricultural demand support domestic manufacturing? In what measure did agricultural exports support the import of capital? How fast did productivity grow? I would have preferred a format based on historical categories of opportunity and response, but these are useful and important questions that do good service as a framework for assembling and interpreting the statistical material.

That material constitutes one of the collection?s major strengths. The series are well-presented and many are new, making the work an indispensable reference for economic historians of late nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Europe. Special care was taken to adjust the data for boundary changes in the case of Germany, Poland, Greece, and Turkey. The French data are an exception and those interested in the statistical record to 1914 are referred to my reconstruction of the French agricultural capital stock and its attached estimate of total factor productivity.[1] The German data are especially helpful in showing the regional diversity of productivity growth in this period. Federico?s new capital stock series alters the traditional picture of utter stagnation in the 1880s and early 1890s, putting the long-term growth record before World War I on a par with other late nineteenth-century industrializing nations.

What generalizations can one draw from the forest of country studies? The number of countries covered makes it impossible to summarize individual contributions. All are excellent, and the best, like Wolf?s essay on Poland, Petmezas?s on Greece, and Pamuk?s on Turkey, are outstanding. Perhaps the simplest way is to interpret the outcomes as the product of the responses of millions of farmers and a dozen or so governments to the period?s specific sequence of opportunities and shocks. The main opportunity was expanding markets for farm produce in regions undergoing industrialization, which sustained cash flows needed to finance agricultural investments and the purchase of modern inputs. The regional unevenness of that opportunity goes a long way to explaining the regional unevenness in agricultural development on the eve of the Second World War. Agricultural countries like Denmark and the Netherlands, which did not experience intense industrialization benefitted from their proximity to markets in Britain, Belgium, and Germany. By contrast, farmers in southern Italy obtained almost no benefit from northern Italy?s late nineteenth-century industrialization. Pre-war Poland is a special and interesting case. Divided among three occupying powers, its western German partition experienced relatively high productivity growth based on markets around Berlin and the industrial district of Silesia. By contrast, a chain of mountains separated Austrian Galicia from urban and industrial districts in Lower Austria and Bohemia, and a tariff wall separated the province from the Russian partition centered on Warsaw, which had a deficit in foodstuffs. North-south differences in dietary traditions also mattered. The comparative advantage of Mediterranean agriculture in olive oil and wine could not be exploited because the cuisine of northern industrializing districts was based on beer and animal fats. The region might still have managed to find an opportunity in the export of citrus fruits, but that market was pre-empted in the 1880s and 1890s by California. The infestation of French and Italian vineyards by phylloxera in the 1880s gave a temporary boost to Greek currant exports, but recovery of French production after 1895 ended the brief boom, precipitating massive emigration of Greek peasants to America.

On the whole then, it would appear that agricultural development in this period was tributary to industrial and urban development rather than the other way round. As to the globalization of the grain trade, about which so much has been written, its impact was felt mainly by farmers provisioning urban markets, to which it was disproportionately oriented. Overall, however, declining transport costs, of which the ?grain invasion? was a prominent consequence, contributed to productivity growth by inducing more efficient land use. As to new technologies and new inputs, the main conditioning factors were the strength of market outlets, the availability of credit, and in the case of agricultural machines employed in field operations, farm size. In northern Europe yields rose most rapidly in districts where declining transport costs made it possible to import fertilizers and soil amendments onto poor soils. These advantages were largely lacking on the periphery, where high transport cost, poorly organized markets and credit, and low demand provided little incentive to invest in new inputs.

As to the farmers? responses, nothing in the record suggests that their reaction to events was economically irrational. The same cannot be said of governments, which adopted protectionist policies supporting rural incomes at the expense of urban consumers, and attempted to soften the cost of those policies by rationing and price controls. That autocratic as well as democratic governments pursued such strategies suggests the continuing need to accommodate the landed interest, including a generally conservative peasantry that still made up half the population. Yet in a long-run perspective it is unclear whether on balance protectionist policies significantly depressed productivity growth. Tariffs were often part of a broader program of public investment. In Portugal and Spain it took the form of roads, hydroelectric projects, and irrigation projects; in Italy, Spain, and Greece autocratic governments subsidized the draining and resettlement of malarial plains; the Swedish government promoted rural electrification. The major exception seems to have been Germany. In the 1930s Germany?s nationalistic pursuit of agricultural self-sufficiency deprived her farmers of the imported feed for livestock, with the result that per capita production of meat in 1939 was less than in 1913. There is no question that agricultural protection in the 1930s depressed real incomes. Yet given worldwide contraction in agricultural demand during the Great Depression it is doubtful that productivity would have grown significantly faster under a regime of free trade. On the whole, the responses of farmers and governments seem to have mattered less for growth in agriculture than the opportunities.

The other feature of this period was war. In successively reading the agricultural histories of the peripheral countries (Poland, Hungary, Portugal, Spain, and Greece and Turkey) one is impressed by the effect of political instability on productivity growth. It does not seem to make much sense to reduce that instability to the effects of insecure property rights, however. Wars, civil or foreign destroyed property, disrupted commercial connections, and displaced hundreds of thousands of people independently of the legal protection of private property. The Civil War in Spain brought large numbers of people to the brink of starvation and malnutrition that lasted through the 1940s. The most important expropriations occurred on disputed territory on the Ionian coast and the southern Balkans that were jointly populated by Greeks and Turks. But once the ethnic cleansings were carried out, the rights of the new owners were fully protected. Even so, productivity stagnated.

Few books can be said to be ?essential reading.? The present book is one of them. The bibliographies are in general full and up to date. The interpretations are within the space limitations imposed by this kind of work sensitive to the political and social context of agricultural change in this period. It is, however, only a beginning of the effort to place the development of Europe?s agriculture through the Continent?s classic phase of industrialization in a long-run perspective that incorporates the period?s technological and social-political specificity.


1. George Grantham, ?The French Agricultural Capital Stock, 1789-1914,? Research in Economic History 16 (1996): 37-83.

George Grantham is a recently retired Professor of Economics at McGill University. His recent work includes ?Explaining the Industrial Transition: A Non-Malthusian Perspective,? European Review of Economic History (2008); ?Creating Abundance: Biological Innovation and American Agricultural Development: A Research Perspective,? Explorations in Economic History (2009) with Jeremy Atack and Peter Coclanis; ?French Agriculture, 1250-1550: Crisis or Continuity?? (forthcoming); ?Female Labour Supply in the Industrial Revolution? (forthcoming) with Franque Grimard; ?Science and Its Transaction Cost: The Emergence of Institutionalized Science in Europe, 1650-1850? (forthcoming); and ?What’s Space Got to Do with It? Distance and Agricultural Productivity before the Railway,? Journal of Economic History (forthcoming). He is also engaged in a translation of Francois Crouzet’s La Grande Inflation: La monnaie en France de Louix XVI a Napoleon.

Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII