- Feeding the World: An Economic History of Agriculture, 1800–2000
Agriculture, somewhat surprisingly, is much in the news these days. Unfortunately, there is a "gloom-and-doom" cast to most of the stories we hear about this sector. If it isn't spikes in commodity prices, it's so-called Frankenstein foods, and if it isn't the continued stalemate in the Doha trade round, it's the problems we will face in the near future as a result of climate change. And to add to our mirth, we are increasingly being told that in the face of these problems—and myriad others ranging from environmental degradation to concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO) to high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)—the world must somehow find a way or ways to feed almost 50 percent more people by 2050 or so while using less land, less water, less fertilizer, and fewer pesticides and herbicides. Smile, everyone!
All of these makes Feeding the World, Giovanni Federico's relatively upbeat and optimistic economic history of agriculture of the past two hundred years, welcome indeed. The author, a distinguished scholar who has published widely on Italian agriculture, is well suited to the formidable task he set for himself, for he is comfortable with economic theory, with the methods employed both by historians and by economists, and with the relevant literatures relating to agricultural history/development in both disciplines. Although the book he has produced is a bit of a slog at times, it represents an impressive distillation of an enormous body of materials and a significant contribution to our understanding of the role of agriculture in the shaping of the modern world.
Federico's central argument in brief stylized form is that agriculture on balance has been a success story over the past two centuries. Such success is readily demonstrable, most notably, via the fact that over the [End Page 173] past two centuries the world's farmers have been able to produce more and more food per capita in a more stable manner at more reasonable prices to a population that has grown six-fold since 1800. Agricultural output increased via both the growth in factor inputs and through rising productivity, with the latter increasingly becoming important in the period since World War II. Public investment in agriculture, both through research and development (R&D) and extension work, was of major importance in fostering gains in agricultural output and productivity over time, as were productivity-enhancing innovations in the institutional realm—the "modernization" of property rights, contractual arrangements, and credit facilities in particular.
Feeding the World is comprised of ten chapters and a valuable, seventeen-page Statistical Appendix. Federico opens with two short, throat-clearing chapters wherein he introduces readers to the broad contours of his chosen subject, before homing in on the said subject with three statistical chapters dealing with agricultural output and the composition of output, agricultural prices, agricultural inputs, and agricultural productivity, followed by four chapters on technological and institutional contributions to rising agricultural output and productivity, and a succinct concluding chapter.
Although Feeding the World includes invaluable statistics throughout and is full of keen insights regarding technology and institutions, many, if not most, economic historians will be especially interested in Federico's efforts (in both Chapter 5 and in the Statistical Appendix) to measure agricultural productivity via estimates of TFP (total factor productivity) and changes in TFP throughout the world over the past two centuries. Federico would be the first to admit that such estimates are sometimes based on sketchy data and in many instances do not inspire confidence. Nonetheless, such estimates represent both a monumental research/compilation effort and a considerable advance over most previous attempts to measure TFP on a similar scale.
Some readers of Feeding the World may well be disappointed with the relative lack of attention paid by Federico to matters relating, for example, to culture, to rural social relations and agrarian class structures...