Boserupian Evolution of Agriculture


Boserup argues that the main stimulus to development of agriculture and productivity is the population growth. Her argument was an opposing view against the Malthus and Ricardo, who developed the macroeconomic theory of the relationship between demographic and agricultural movement in Europe.

Mathusian theory claimed that “a population can never increase beyond the food supplied necessary to support it”. According to him, food supplies can only grow arithmetically while the human population grows geometrically. Thus, food supply should be high enough before any geometric population growth happens. Malthusian theory was relevant for his time, which was before the Industrial Revolution. Back then, his belief was that, it was more important to deal with supply of food first because of the fact that agriculture supply can exist without human population growth, however the human population cannot continue to exist without sufficient food supply. The limitation of Malthusian theory is the fact that he couldn’t foresee the globalization and he couldn’t include this factor into his analysis.

Boserup in 19th century proposed another theory that is very distinct than the Mathusian theory arising due to the technological advancement starting with Industrial Revolution. Boserup suggested that “an increase in population would stimulate technologists to increase food production”. When compared to Malthusian theory, this argument is completely opposite to what Malthus has said. The base of Boserup’s theory is: “necessity is the mother of invention”. In other words, after the rise of technology, food supply followed the growth of human population, thus the food supply depended on the growth of population, not the other way around as of what Malthus argued.

There were two options of agricultural expansion in response to population growth. Extensive expansion was investing in new lands and cropping those lands, however it brings a diminishing return to labor due to the distance and volatile quality than the land in use.  Intensive expansion refers to cultivating the existing land more intensively. However, it may also bring diminishing return to labor and capital due to the capacity of utilization. Out of the analysis, Malthus and Ricardo estimated that the increase in population size will one day be overshadowed by the drop in real wages, increase of rents, and the decrease in per capita food consumption. This assumption might have been through, if there was no another option that could be considered. The third type of agricultural expansion that Malthus and Ricardo missed in their analysis is using the increasing labor force to crop the existing field more frequently. The similarity of this type with others is the diminishing return to labor, however the additions to total output obtained by increasing frequency of harvesting are much bigger than the ones gained by using more labor and capital to simply raise crop yields. That is, it was not a method to raise crop yields, but to prevent a drop of those yields as fallow is shortened or eradicated.

The failure of taking the disparity in frequency of harvesting into account shaky for the analysis of the relationship between agricultural changes and demographic transition in developing countries.

Regarding the labor supply, if population density in an area increases, fallow erased and multi cropping introduced, then more labor-intensive means should be used to conserve soil fertility and protect the land. If these methods require human and animal muscle power, the necessary input of  human labor is huge. The larger the periodicity of harvests is, the steeper the demand for labor gets when intensive land use is introduced.


Also, the commercial producers seek for an increase in price which is followed by an increase in population size. Even though the increase in the prices of agricultural products does not directly mean that there will be an increase of Ricardian rent, however it is definitely a compensation for increasing costs of production. If the raise in the food prices is blocked by government interference or by the import of cheaper food, the intensification wouldn’t take place due to the discouragement of commercial producers.

Besides the labor work factor, the transportation plays a huge role in the analysis of agriculture-population relationship. Urbanization and commercial production are only feasible if the population densities are relatively large, and fallow periods short. One outcome of this aspect is that when population in a region continuously increases, at one extend small market tons will emerge, assisted by road and water transport. As population continues to grow it will be again important to make a choice between further intensification at increasing costs or moving the population to another location, where the group can be supplied by less intensive agriculture. This process results in the erection of new centers of consumption between the old towns, or in peripheral areas together with agricultural settlement, and by building these settlements the movement over longer and longer distances would be cut, thereby the Ricardian rent would be smaller.

The Solow Growth Model suggests that the only way an economy can permanently grow is through technological advancement. The application of model can be observed also on the agricultural growth. Labor is likely to be fully occupied even in minute holdings, when primate technology is put in work. As a result, output and income in such holdings could be extended by introducing industrial/scientific inputs, and human capital investment of the types used in industrialized countries. The new advanced tehcnologies may change the restraints on the population size from the single one of land area to those of energy supply and costs, and of capital investment. A technological and infrastructure improvement may be sufficient to move from subsistence production to commercial production, if it ends in a major decrease in the divergence between the prices paid to the local producers and those gained in the consuming events.

The classical economists had argued that the continuous population growth would bring a malnutrition, famine and disease, which would bring back the balance between population and supply by increasing mortality. An alternative scenario that they have also thought is that the population growth might be prevented by voluntary restraint on fertility. Out of this analysis, the suggested hypothesis was that the decreasing rates of population growth was a result of economic and social changes.


All the factors support Boserup’s view that if the food supply is reaching exhaustion, the extra people don’t have to die, instead they should upgrade the productivity of agriculture. When there is potentially more population than the potential supply of food, people will cultivate the land more intensively, use more efficient resources and improve their crops. They invent their way out of Malthusian crisis. There are few limitations to Boserup’s assumption. Firstly, if we follow the assumption, the biggest technological advancement should come from the places with large number of population who are close to starving. However, in reality those places have low-end technology and they are underdeveloped mostly. Moreover, some argue that the assumption cannot hold indefinitely. Namely, after an extent population may get so huge that whatever they invent will not yield enough supply to fed everyone and the main reason behind it is the sustainability of environment. Can the environment last to such a huge pressure for long? That’s a question that has to be analyzed.

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By hheydaroff