Feeding the World: An Economic History of Agriculture, 1800-2000.

Author:DeGregori, Thomas R.
Position::Book review

Feeding the World: An Economic History of Agriculture, 1800-2000, by Giovanni Federico. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press. 2005. Cloth, ISBN 069112051X, $45.00. 416 pages.

From 1800 to 1900, world population doubled from around 800 million to about 1.6 billion. Nevertheless world food production increased faster than population so that a large portion of the world's population was better fed than ever before. This was accomplished partially by bringing new lands under cultivation but also as a result of advances in chemistry and biology including the Darwinian understanding of evolution and the rediscovery of Mendelian genetics as the century was closing. Equally important if not more so was the discovery by Justus Baron von Liebig that inorganic minerals could be used to provide plant nutrient. The early origins of beliefs about organic/biodynamic agriculture can be found in the initial rejection of von Liebig theories and the later concession that they did allow crops to grow but that the crops lacked "vital" properties.

From 1900 to the present, population quadrupled and, in spite of forecasts of mass famine, the world is better fed with fewer people in hunger today than a half century ago. Feeding the better than doubling of world population in the last half century has been accomplished almost entirely by increasing yields as the increase in land under cultivation has only been about 7 percent to 10 percent. In the period covered by the book, 1800 to 2000, population has increased roughly eight times from 800 million to close to 6.2 billion people. Giovanni Federico tells the story of the agricultural transformations that allowed this to happen. It is a history that I teach, and I am delighted to find a book with such a comprehensive coverage of this important topic.

This book provides everything that a mainstream economic history or agricultural history course would want to cover. It is replete with tables that require nearly three pages to list as well as four graphs and just one map. There are chapters on long-term trends focusing on output, prices, composition, and trade, on patterns of growth focusing on inputs, on the increases in productivity focusing on factor productivity, and on the microeconomics of agricultural institutions. From an institutionalist perspective, the formal structure of Federico's analysis contains a vast amount of empirical data on technological change.

In the nineteenth century in Europe and...

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