Ester Boserup: On the Evolution of Agriculture

Ester Boserup: On the Evolution of Agriculture


Ester Boserup was born in Copenhagen in 1910
and graduated from the University of Copenhagen in 1935 in theoretical economics within a
broad social science background. Her research work began with a decade at the UN and its
agencies in the late 1940s; she spent the remainder of her career as a consultant and
independent researcher. She died in 1999. What is the interrelationship between population
growth and food supply? Can look at how changes in food production
affect population growth. Or, you can look at how population change
affects agriculture. Malthus and his followers believed that food
supply can only grow slowly, and that the supply of food is the main factor governing
the rate of population growth. Population growth is therefore seen as the
result of previous changes in agricultural productivity. “In other words, for those who view the relationship
between agriculture and population in essentially Malthusian perspective there is at any given
time in any given community a warranted rate of population increase with which the actual
growth of population tends to conform” (Boserup, 1965, p. 11). This warranted increase is, of course, the
increase in the supply of food. But Boserup approaches the problem from the
opposite direction. She sets out to demonstrate that the primary stimulus to agricultural
development and productivity is population growth. In other words, agricultural development
is caused by previous growth in population rather than the other way around. The classical economists were misled because
they were writing at the time of the expansion of agriculture in the Americas by European
settlers. They made a distinction between two different ways to raise agricultural output:
expansion into new land by creating new fields, and more intensive cultivation. But primitive agriculture does not make use
of permanent fields; it shifts cultivation from plot to plot, allowing a fallow period
in order to give the land time to regenerate. “In primitive agriculture there is no sharp
distinction between cultivated and uncultivated land, and it is impossible to distinguish
clearly between the creation of new fields and the change of methods in existing field”
(1965, pp. 12-13). “Once the time-honored distinction between
cultivated and uncultivated land is replaced by the concept of frequency of cropping, the
economic theory of agricultural development becomes compatible with the theories of changing
landscape propounded by natural scientists” (1965, p. 13). Soil fertility is not simply a gift of nature,
a given quality that never changes. It is highly variable and closely associated with
agricultural methods. Forrest-fallow: Plots of land are cleared
in the forest and planted for a year or two. The land is then left fallow in order for
the forest to regenerate, from 20-25 years. Bush-fallow: The fallow period is only six to ten years in
which time the land is covered in bush and small trees. Short-fallow: A system in which the fallow
is one or two years. In the fallow period the land is invaded by wild grasses. Annual cropping: The land is left uncultivated
for only several months between harvest and planting. Within this group Boserup also includes
crop rotation systems. Multi-cropping: Occurs when the same plot
of land bears two or more crops every year; in such a system there is no real fallow period. Boserup does not mean for the land-use typology
to be a classification only; rather, it is meant to broadly characterize the main stages
of the evolution of agriculture from prehistoric times to the present. Once you use “frequency of cropping” as your
measure of intensification, theories of the economic development of agriculture can be
directly linked with changes in local landscape, flora, and fauna. For example, as people shorten the fallow
period, forests deteriorate and bushes take over the land. Further intensification still
will bring wild grasses. “The invasion of forest and bush by grass is most likely to
happen when an increasing population of long-fallow cultivators cultivate the land with more and
more frequent intervals” (1965, p. 20). In this way, many forest and bush areas gradually
become savannah as a result of the intensification of agriculture . She believes that a large
share of the open grasslands of the world originated in this way. These new grasslands provide food for cattle,
horses, and other animals suitable for domestication, as well as bringing potential domesticates
into closer contact with human settlements. Boserup’s theory runs counter to traditional
theory which held that nomadic tribes turned to agriculture only when their herds could
no longer support their population. “The sequence is now supposed to be the reverse: tribes
which previously cultivated short-lived plots in the forest and bush land have come to rely
on the grazing of animals only after they cultivated forest plots for a very long period
ending in the transformation of the forest into grassland” (1965, 20-21). Other tribes used the animals attracted to
the new grasslands to help cultivate and fertilize the fields. As population increases, most
of the land brought under more frequent cultivation in a given area was already used for something:
fallow, hunting ground, or grazing areas. “It follows that when a given area of land
comes to be cropped more frequently than before, the purpose which it was hitherto used must
be taken care of in a new way, and this may create additional activities for which new
tools and other investments are required” (1965, pp. 13-14). Thus, population changes often have direct
effects upon agricultural technology. For this reason even primitive agricultural output
can be increased significantly by additional inputs of labor. The traditional view is that the main cultivation
tool is the chief criterion for classifying primitive agricultural systems. Thus we have
Simple Horticulture (digging stick), Advanced Horticulture (hoe and irrigation), and Agrarian
societies (plow and animal power). “This theory is apt to mislead because it
ignores the fact that the kind of agricultural tool needed in a given context depends upon
the system of land use: some technical changes can materialize only if the system of land
use is modified at the same time, and some changes in land use can come about only if
they are accompanied by the introduction of new tools” (1965, 23). In forest fallow cultivation, the burning
of undergrowth frees the land of weeds and hoeing is completely unnecessary. When the fallow is shortened, bushes and weeds
take root, burning is not an effective method of clearing the land, so the hoe is needed. As the fallow shortens, grasses take root
and these are difficult to remove through hoeing, thus the plow becomes necessary. Not
only that, but with the disappearance of the roots of bushes and tree, the plow also becomes
possible. Finally, as grass lands replace forests with
the shortening of fallow, they are often invaded by nomads seeking to feed their herds. Thus
animals suitable for cultivation and fertilization appear “around the time when the local cultivators
need them and become able to use them (1965, p. 25).. Both the methods of cultivation and fertilization
become more labor intensive with the shortening of fallow. While such methods produce more
crops per acre, they also require far more human labor to produce these yields. Far more work is needed to produce food; with
population increase a household has to work far harder to maintain its standard of living.
The short term effect of intensification is necessarily to lower output per hour of work. “But sustained growth of total population
and of total output in a given area has secondary effects which—at least in some cases—can
set off a genuine process of economic growth” (1965, p. 118). These secondary effects of intensification
include a compulsion to work harder and more regularly, changing work habits and raising
overall productivity; intensification also facilitates the division of labor and the
spread of urbanization, education, and communication which further stimulates the growth of agriculture. Thus intensification can only take place in
response to population pressures within a given area. Even when people have access to
more intensive techniques and tools, the investments in labor are often so large that they are
not likely to be made unless population increase makes them necessary. Unless population pressures are keenly felt,
people will reject more intensive methods of cultivation as being a bad bargain—far
more work for only marginally more food. Boserup does not so much refute T. Robert
Malthus as round him out by providing a more complete picture of the multitude of relationships
between population, agricultural production, and the environment. While Malthus focused upon the necessity to
keep human numbers in line with the food that could be produced, Boserup focuses upon how
the amount of food that can be produced is dependent upon human numbers. She demonstrates
that agricultural production is quite responsive to increased labor. Malthus, on the other hand, also recognized
that the production of food could be increased, but he asserted that such intensification
could never equal natural population growth for long. Boserup did not dispute this; she
did document the fact, however, that a growing population often stimulates an intensification
of agricultural production. Malthus made similar assertions in his 1798 Essay on the Principle
of Population. For Malthus, the principle of population “keeps
the inhabitants of the earth always fully up to the level of the means of subsistence;
and is constantly acting upon man as a powerful stimulus, urging him to the further cultivation
of the earth, and to enable it, consequently, to support a more extended population” (Malthus
[1798] 2001, p. 281). Boserup’s main contribution is in clearly
positing these relationships and empirically verifying them throughout the social evolutionary
process. Her basic model had great influence on the social evolutionary theory of Mark
Cohen, Marvin Harris, and Gerhard Lenski. For a more extensive discussion of Boserup’s
theories refer to Macro Social Theory, available through Amazon.com at a reasonable price.
As she is an economist and at heart, a Malthusian, you will find a tight summary and critique
of her work in the chapter on Malthus. Also see Sociocultural Systems: Principles
of Structure and Change to learn how her insights contribute to a fuller understanding of modern
societies. This book can be purchased at most online bookstores or at Athabasca University
Press. If you are short of funds Athabasca also offers a free pdf version of the work. A significant portion of the royalties I receive
for these books go to the Rogers State University Foundation in support of students in the Liberal
Arts. I thank you for your support and interest.

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