Ester Boserup was an economist who studied agricultural and economic development. Her work involved agrarian change on the international level and what the role of women should be within societal development. Much of her work was for the United Nations and other international organizations.
Her best-known work regarding population cycles and agricultural production is called The Conditions of Agricultural Growth and was published in 1965. Unlike other theories of population change, Boserup didn’t draw an apocalyptic view of the future. Instead, the major point that she attempts to make with her theory is that humans look at necessity as an inspiration to invent new processes.
What Is the Ester Boserup Theory?
For more than two centuries, population growth centered around a theory proposed by Thomas Malthus. He suggested that if human populations continued to grow, then food production would be unable to keep up with the demands placed upon it. Eventually, the planet would reach a point where there wouldn’t be enough food that could be grown to support the number of people living.
This would create a famine that would likely kill many people, thus adjusting the population levels to the maximum number that could be supported by food production activities. Referred to as Malthusian theory, the idea is that humanity will one day exceed its carrying capacity.
The Ester Boserup theory takes a different approach. Instead of human population levels being limited to the amount of food that a society can grow, she suggests that food production will continue to increase as population levels increase.
Boserup developed her theory based on her knowledge and experiences in the agrarian world. She showed that when there is a threat of starvation to a population center, there is an enhanced level of motivation for people to improve their farming methods. They will invent new technologies and change their labor patterns so that more food can be produced.
How Accurate is Boserupian Theory?
When Malthus first suggested his theory, there were fewer than 800 million people living on the planet. It wouldn’t be until the 19th century when the first estimations of 1 billion come about.
When Boserup proposed her theory, US and UN census data estimated a global population level of over 3 billion people.
Today, there is more than 7 billion people living on our planet. By 2050, the estimated population levels will be between 9-10 billion.
Data released by Oxfam suggests that Boserupian theory has some merit. In their last reported agricultural harvest, they show that current crop yields produce 17% more food than what is needed for every human in 2010 to have enough to eat. Hunger exists because of the governmental and distribution structures that are in place. Billions of tons of food are wasted annually because of these structures.
This means the Ester Boserup theory has great merit. Since she first proposed this theory, population levels have doubled. The world is 10 times more populated today than it was during the time of Malthus. We are still producing more food from a total capacity standpoint than we need and production levels continue to rise.
Is There a Limit to Potential Growth?
Boserup suggests that agricultural production is based on the idea of “intensification.” Farmers may own land, but choose not to maximize their property’s production levels. There might be three fields owned by the farmer, but only two will be used because the third doesn’t have optimal growing conditions. If the farmer has more children and must support a larger family, he will use the third field in some way to support the higher food needs that are required.
This means there is no real limit to the potential growth that humanity could experience when it comes to food production.
The fact is that we are still greatly under-utilizng our croplands today. In the United States, about 350 million acres is designated as cropland. 80% of total US acreage is used for 4 crops: feeder corn, soybeans, alfalfa, and wheat. The first three crops are generally used to feed livestock, which is then used to create animal products within the food system.
Just 3 million acres is set aside in the US right now for vegetable production. There are nearly 800 million acres of pasture and another 250 million acres of grazed forest lands that could be potentially converted into croplands – and that’s just in the United States.
There could be some truth to what Malthus suggests, but Boserup shows that we are a long way from such an apocalyptic future right now. That’s why she suggests we should hope for the future instead of despair.