Think like a farmer

“Farming is hard work, so why do more of it?” That is what many early farmers were probably thinking when deciding between fuller bellies or keeping their long off-seasons of leisure time– at least from the perspective of Ester Boserup.

Since its 1965 release, Ester Boserup’s seminal study The Conditions of Agricultural Growth has changed the way many people think about the relationship between population growth and food production. At the time of its publication, the Malthusian view of human population growth and collapse was widely accepted. In regards to agriculture, the Malthusian view asserts that agrarian change is necessary to support population growth, otherwise populations would be subjected to famine, disease, and consequent decline as the land’s carrying capacity is exceeded. Boserup’s view of agrarian change, on the other hand, is one of gradual adaptation of cultivation practices to increases in population density. In other words, population growth causes agrarian change– not the other way around.

Based on a multitude of observations of agrarian societies from around the world, the Boserupian view is simply the most consistent and comprehensive explanation of agricultural change that currently exists. The Boserupian view just makes sense! Although her study is dated in its statistics and examples, Boserup’s ideas about the process of agrarian change are deeply insightful and as true today as they were 45 years ago. This book is a must-read if you have any interest in population and land-use dynamics.

So, why is the Boserupian view so appealing?

The Boserupian view of agrarian change takes a bottom-up approach to agrarian change, from the point of view of the farmer. Boserup explains that in pre-industrial, primitive agricultural communities a farmer is most likely to choose the cultivation method that produces enough food for subsistence with the least amount of labor. However, as population density increases, motivation to avoid the doomsday scenario that Malthus described prompts the farmer to increase total food output by intensifying land cultivation. This intensification (i.e., more clearing, tilling, and fertilizing) requires significantly more labor. Although total food output increases, the ratio of output to man-hour of labor—or the efficiency of that labor—inevitably decreases. Agrarian change doesn’t just happen on it’s own. Rather, increases in population drive farmers to invest more time and energy into cultivation, ultimately boosting food production. This view paints a bottom-up picture of land-use and cultivation systems as driven by individual farmer decisions, rather than as spontaneously generating agricultural innovation and dictating allowable population levels from the top-down. Based on the relatively simple argument of the farmer’s desire to avoid hard labor—which we can all relate to—Boserup elegantly illustrates the complex relationships between food production, population growth, and land-use changes.

But what about today? Is this still relevant?

More than ever! Given the connections between global change and how we use the Earth’s surface to feed ourselves, the perfect time to revisit Boserup’s work is now. Sure, some people are comfortable with the argument that technology will save us, which, to a certain extent is true. However, given the current world population of nearly 6.7 billion (World Bank, 2010), Malthusians might wonder when the technological change will occur and whether it will arrive in time to avoid a population crash. But, Boserupians understand that these changes are already underway. People are responding (as they always have) to population growth by altering means of food production (e.g. industrial agriculture).

The Boserupian view makes one especially relevant break with Malthusians. We are living in the Anthropocene, or the geologic age in which humans both create and are an integral part of the biosphere. Whereas the Malthusian view treats people as merely an impact on the environment, the Boserupian view sees people as proactive agents, able to shape the environment to meet our needs. An exceedingly more hopeful view, don’t you think? Only as active managers of the Earth’s surface, able to choose cultivation methods that both feed us and pay heed to the land-use patterns those choices create, will we be able to meet the needs of a burgeoning global population. Boserup’s view suggests that we focus our energies on managing local agrarian and land-use changes to ensure we adapt to global change in the most life-affirming way possible. I happen to agree.


Boserup, Ester (1965). The Conditions of Agricultural Growth: The Economics of Agrarian Change under Population Pressure. Aldine Atherton, Inc.: Chicago, IL.

World Bank (2010). “World Development Indicators”. Accessed on August 31, 2010. URL:

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