RHI Seminar: Niek Koning (Wageningen University)

Organised by Rural and Environmental History

Tue 12 January 2016 12:30 to 14:00

Venue Leeuwenborch, gebouwnummer 201
Room C68

Agricultural development and the fates of human societies since c. 1850: Towards an explanatory framework

Human subsistence greatly depends on organic substances originating in photosynthesis. These can be of two kinds: living biomass or fossil biomass. During 99.9 percent of their existence, humans were almost entirely dependent on living biomass. They gradually improved their methods to extract this through techno-cultural change, but this did not permanently keep scarcity away, so that growth phases alternated with stagnation and crisis.

In the 19th century, the Fossil Biomass Revolution changed this world of recurrent scarcity into one of global abundance. Unlike what usually happened in pre-fossil growth phases, this allowed a protracted increase in per capita incomes, but it also prompted a demographic tidal wave. Without draconic measures, this latter could only be stopped by economic growth, because this entailed incentives for people to reduce their offspring. In the West and Japan, economic development after some time led to a completion of the demographic transition. However, in much of Asia, modern economic growth was delayed; in Latin America, it was tainted by high inequality; and in Africa, it still has to begin. The upshot is that world population has grown several billions larger than when these regions would have seen socially inclusive growth from an earlier date, and the end is nowhere in sight.

One question is what this population boom will mean for global food security in the long term, when it may become more difficult to expand the output of global agriculture, and when new constraints in the exploitation of fossil biomass may induce a new demand for living biomass for non-food products. Another question is why the opportunities of the Fossil Biomass Revolution have not, only belatedly, or only partly been used in many regions. In this introduction, I will focus on the latter question.

My basic assumption is that, even if the causation is more complex than older researchers assumed, agricultural modernization is a vital condition for modern economic growth. However, agricultural modernization didn’t start spontaneously. Although Fossil Biomass Revolution opened a vast potential for expanding agricultural production and raising the productivity of farm labour, it also entailed new problems for agricultural development. These could only be overcome when governments intervened to support investment by self-employed farmers through public investment in hard and soft infrastructures, and often also through income and price policies. Because modern economic growth depended on agricultural development, and because agricultural development in its turn depended on supportive policy intervention, the economic fates of countries were greatly influenced by their farm policy decisions. If suggest that these latter largely depended on three conditions: (1) the social fabric of societies; (2) their strength in the system of international relations; and (3) the changing political-economic configurations in the strong countries. The West and Japan implemented supportive farm policies from an early date because they were ‘farmer societies’ whose social fabric generated pressures for such policies, and because they were strong countries that were free to make their own choices. Other parts of Asia had a comparable social fabric, but their international position was weaker so that they only could implement supportive farm policies after the Second World War, when a new ‘welfare state’ configuration in the strong countries opened a window of opportunity to do so. The social fabric of Latin America and Russia stimulated redistributive class conflict, and that of sub-Saharan Africa, redistributive ethnic-clientelist conflict rather than supportive farm policies. As a consequence, self-employed farmers were not supported, or were overtaxed to pay the cost of growing bureaucracies that were pools of jobs for political clients. This crippled the economic development of these countries and pushed them into a fiscal crisis in the 1970s-80s. This made them vulnerable to the pressure for liberalizing reforms that strong countries began to exert when their welfarism gave way to a new, ‘neoliberal’ configuration from the 1980s – reforms that have often exacerbated the problems in the regions concerned.

More information about Niek Koning can be found here.