Chapter 4: World Agriculture in the Very Long Term
INTRODUCTION World agricultural history is so vast a topic that a discussion of it could be organized in innumerable ways. Compressing even the barest outlines of the story into a single chapter requires a very tight structure. Given the present purposes of linking back to earlier chapters on long-term economic change and forwards to the section on Protectionism, the arrangement of this chapter will take the form of three pairs of contrasts: demand and supply explanations of the long-run growth of output; the contrasting histories and eventual divergence of irrigation and rain-fed agricultures; and the shift in developed countries from merely an adequate supply of foodstuffs to a harmful over-supply. The first of these sections considers the alternatives of demand- and supplybased explanations of rising output, devoting most space to the implications for the world economy between 1500-1800 of the positive shock imparted by the ‘Columbian Exchange’ of plants and animals. The second section notes that in terms of physical productivity and technical elaboration the oriental river valleys eclipsed all other agricultural systems and supported the most advanced civilizations throughout most of history, but this began to change (notably from the seventeenth century) with the emergence of solutions to the problems of soil fertility in temperate Europe. The responsiveness of Japanese agriculture was also noteworthy at that time and there were parallels with European ‘improvement’ that would repay closer comparative examination. The third section considers the perverse response of developed countries to rising food supplies at home and abroad from...
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