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 policies.

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 interpretation.

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).