The Conditions of Agricultural Growth: The Economics of Agrarian Change under Population Pressure

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The Conditions of Agricultural Growth: The Economics of Agrarian Change under Population Pressure by Ester Boserup

For full text or to download this paper click this link: Boserup 1965_The Conditions of Agricultural Growth

This paper analyses the problem of agricultural progress in primitive communities from an entirely new angle: Boserup regards the growth of population as the autonomous factor making for a steady intensification in agriculture, which in turn brings a whole host of economic and sociological changes in its train. Boserup’s main thesis is that, contrary to the prevailing view, primitive communities with a sustained population growth have a better chance of getting into a process of genuine economic development than primitive communities with stagnant or declining populations. 

Ever since economists have taken an interest in the secular trends of human societies, they have had to face the problem of the interrelationship between population growth and food production. There are two fundamentally different ways of approaching this problem. On the one hand, we may want to know how changes in agricultural conditions affect the demographic situation. And, conversely, one may inquire about the effects of population change upon agriculture.

To ask the first of these two questions is to adopt the approach of Malthus and his more or less faithful followers. Their reasoning is based upon the belief that the supply of food for the human race is inherently inelastic, and that this lack of elasticity is the main factor governing the rate of population growth. Thus, population growth is seen as the dependent variable, determined by pre- ceding changes in agricultural productivity which, in their turn, are explained as the result of extraneous factors, such as the fortuitous factor of technical invention and imitation. In other words, for those who view the relationship between agriculture and population in this essentially Malthusian perspective there is at any given time in any given community a warranted rate of popula- tion increase with which the actual growth of population tends to conform.

The approach of the present study is the opposite one. It is based throughout upon the assumption—which the author believes to be the more realistic and fruitful one—that the main line of causation is in the opposite direction: population growth is here regarded as the independent variable which in its turn is a major factor determining agricultural developments.

Actual events in the present period should go some way to make this change of perspective acceptable. Few observers would like to suggest that the tremendous increase in rates of population growth witnessed throughout the underdeveloped world in the two post-war decades could be explained as the result of changes in the conditions for food production. It is reasonably clear that the population explosion is a change in basic conditions which must be regarded as autonomous, in the sense that the explanation is to be sought, not in improved conditions of food production, but in medical invention and some other factors which the student of agricultural development would regard as independent variables.

The burden of the present study is, then, to show that this line of causa- tion, where agricultural developments are caused by population trends rather than the other way round, is the dominant one, not only in the special and obvious case of the two decades since 1945, but in agricultural development generally. The author hopes to have shown that this approach is conducive to a fuller understanding of the actual historical course of agriculture, including the development of patterns and techniques of cultivation as well as the social structures of agrarian communities. 

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