Scientific and Technical Constraints on Agricultural Production: Prospects for the Future1

By Ruttan, Vernon W. | Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, December 2005 | Go to article overview

Scientific and Technical Constraints on Agricultural Production: Prospects for the Future1


Ruttan, Vernon W., Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society


PRIOR TO THE BEGINNING of the twentieth century, almost all increases in crop and animal production occurred as a result of increases in the area cultivated. By the end of the century almost all increases were coming from increases in land productivity-in output per acre or per hectare. This was an exceedingly short period in which to make a transition from a natural resource-based to a science-based system of agricultural production. In the currently developed countries, the beginning of this transition was in the latter half of the nineteenth century. In most developing countries, the transition did not begin until well into the second half of the twentieth century. For some of the poorest countries in the world, the transition has not yet begun.

During the second half of the twentieth century world population more than doubled-from approximately 2.5 billion in 1950 to 6.0 billion in 2000. The demands placed on global agricultural production arising out of population and income growth almost tripled. By 2050, world population is projected to grow to between 9 and 10 billion. Most of the growth is expected to occur in poor countries where even moderately high income growth, combined with projected population growth, could nearly double the demands placed on the world's farmers by 2050 (Johnson 2000; United Nations 2001).

The most difficult challenges will occur during the next two or three decades as both population and income in many of the world's poorest countries continue to grow rapidly. But rapid decline in the rate of population growth in such populous countries as India and China lends credence to United Nations projections that by mid-century the global rate of population growth will slow substantially. The demand for food arising out of income growth is also expected to slow. In the interim, very substantial increases in scientific and technical effort will be required, particularly in the world's poorest countries, if growth in food production is to keep pace with growth in demand.

AGRICULTURE IN DEVELOPMENT THOUGHT

Economic understanding of the process of agricultural development has made substantial advances over the last half-century. In the early postWorld War II literature, agriculture, along with other natural-resourcebased industries, was viewed as a sector from which resources could be extracted to fund development in the industrial sector (Lewis 1954, 139; Rostow 1956, 25-48; Ranis and Fei 1961, 533-65). Growth in agricultural production was viewed as an essential condition, or even a precondition, for growth in the rest of the economy. But the process by which agricultural growth was generated remained outside the concern of most development economists.

By the early 1960s a new perspective, more fully informed by both agricultural science and economics, was beginning to emerge. It had become increasingly clear that much of agricultural technology was "location specific." Techniques developed in advanced countries were not generally directly transferable to less developed countries with different climates and resource endowments. Evidence had also accumulated that only limited productivity gains were to be had by the reallocation of resources within traditional peasant agriculture.

In an iconoclastic book, Transforming Traditional Agriculture, Theodore W. Schultz insisted that peasants in traditional agrarian societies were rational allocators of available resources and that they remained poor because most poor countries provided them with only limited technical and economic opportunities to which they could respond-that is, they were "poor but efficient." Schultz (1964, 145-47) wrote:

The principal sources of high productivity in modern agriculture are reproducible sources. They consist of particular material inputs and of skills and other capabilities required to use such inputs successfully. . . . But these modern inputs are seldom ready made. .. …

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