The economic history of agriculture since 1800

Giovanni Federico

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Introduction: two centuries of successes Today agriculture does not enjoy a great reputation. In advanced countries, it is blamed for being inefficient and polluting. In less developed countries (LDCs), it is accused of failing to perform its main task - i.e. producing enough to feed the population at affordable prices. Yet the historical performance of the agricultural sector does not warrant this pessimism. In the last two centuries, world agriculture succeeded in producing enough to provide more food per capita than ever before, in spite of an almost seven-fold increase in population, and to supply industries with raw materials, all using less land, capital, and labor per unit of output. It has been a really remarkable feat, and this chapter describes how it was achieved. Mapping the growth of total production in the first seventy years of the nineteenth century is not easy. There are few, and often only tentative, series of data, which refer almost exclusively to countries in Europe and North America. In none of these countries, however, other than Portugal, did total output decline, and in the majority of cases it increased faster than population. We cannot rule out that these gains were offset by a decline in output per capita elsewhere in the world, but this hypothesis is not terribly plausible. The world’s growing population was mostly employed in agriculture and, as we will detail in the next section, land was abundant. The quantitative evidence is more solid after 1870. It is possible to estimate an index of "world" output from national production series for twenty-five countries, accounting for about 50-55 percent of world population. The list includes all European countries (except the Balkans), the United States, Canada, the main Asian countries (India, China, Indonesia, and Japan), and three countries in South America (Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay). Production per capita in these twenty-five countries increased quite fast before the First World War (at a yearly rate of 0.55 percent) and stagnated from 1913 to 1938 (Fig. 3.1).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge World History
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages23
ISBN (Electronic)9781139196079
ISBN (Print)9781107000209
StatePublished - Jan 1 2015

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


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