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Ester Boserup was born in Copenhagen in 1910 and graduated from the University of Copenhagen in 1935 in theoretical economics within a broad social science background. Her research work began with a decade at the United Nations and its agencies in the late 1940s; she spent the remainder of her career as a consultant and independent researcher. She died in 1999.
Boserup’s primary focus is the relationship between population growth and food supply. The English economist Thomas Robert Malthus (1766–1834) and his followers believed that food supply can only grow slowly and is the main factor governing the rate of population growth. Population growth is therefore seen as the result of previous changes in agricultural productivity. Boserup approaches the problem from the opposite direction. She sets out to demonstrate that the primary stimulus to agricultural productivity is population growth itself.
Boserup groups land use into five different types in order of increasing intensity. The first is forest-fallow, in which plots of land are cleared in the forest and planted for a year or two. The land is then left fallow for twenty to twenty-five years in order for the forest to regenerate. With bush-fallow, this period is only six to ten years, in which time the land is covered in bush and small trees. Short-fallow is a system in which the fallow period is one or two years, during which the land is invaded by wild grasses. With annual cropping, the land is left uncultivated for only several months between harvest and planting. Finally, multicropping occurs when the same plot of land bears two or more crops every year. But Boserup does not mean the land-use typology to be a classification scheme only; rather, it is meant to characterize the main stages of the evolution of agriculture from prehistoric times to the present.
Once “frequency of cropping” is used as a measure of intensification, theories of the development of agriculture can be directly linked with changes in local landscape, flora, and fauna. For example, as people shorten the fallow period, forests deteriorate and bushes take over the land. Further intensification will bring wild grasses. In this way, many forest and bush areas gradually became savannah as a result of the intensification of agriculture. These new grasslands provide food for cattle, horses, and other animals suitable for domestication.
Both the methods of cultivation and fertilization must become more labor intensive with the shortening of fallow. While such methods produce more crops per acre, they also require far more human labor to produce these yields—and the increase in yield is not commensurate with effort. The short-term effect of intensification, Boserup maintains, necessarily lowers output per manhour. The investments in labor are so large that they are not likely to be made unless population increase makes them necessary. But there are “secondary effects” of the growth of population that lead to real economic growth in the long term. These secondary effects include a compulsion to work harder and more regularly, changing work habits that raise overall productivity, and the facilitation of urbanization, communication, education, the division of labor, and the further intensification of agriculture.
Yet another major contribution Boserup made to the literature on development was her book Woman’s Role in Economic Development (1970). In this book, Boserup made clear that gender is one of the main criteria for the division of labor in all societies; but, she argued, there is a great diversity in this division of labor between the sexes across societies. The primary factors that are related to the work and subsequent status of women are population density and the availability of land. This division of labor in farming systems carries over into nonfarm activities as well.
Boserup does not so much refute Malthus as round him out by providing a more complete picture of the multitude of relationships between population, agricultural production, and the environment. While Malthus focused upon the necessity to keep human numbers in line with the food that could be produced, Boserup focuses upon how the amount of food that can be produced is dependent upon human numbers. She demonstrates that agricultural production is quite responsive to increased labor. Malthus, on the other hand, also recognized that the production of food could be increased, but he asserted that such intensification could never equal natural population growth for long. Boserup did not dispute this; she did document the fact, however, that a growing population often stimulates an intensification of agricultural production. Malthus made similar assertions in his Essay on the Principle of Population (1798). For Malthus, the principle of population “keeps the inhabitants of the earth always fully up to the level of the means of subsistence; and is constantly acting upon man as a powerful stimulus, urging him to the further cultivation of the earth, and to enable it, consequently, to support a more extended population” (Malthus  2001, p. 281). Boserup’s main contribution is in clearly positing these relationships and empirically verifying them throughout the social evolutionary process. Her basic model had great influence on the social evolutionary theory of Mark Cohen, Marvin Harris, and Gerhard Lenski.
- Boserup, Ester. 1965. The Conditions of Agricultural Growth: The Economics of Agrarian Change under Population Pressure. New York: Aldine.
- Boserup, Ester. 1970. Woman’s Role in Economic Development. London: Allen and Unwin.
- Boserup, Ester. 1999. My Professional Life and Publications, 1929–1998. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, University of Copenhagen.
- Malthus, T. Robert.  2001. An Essay on the Principle of Population as It Affects the Future Improvement of Society, with Remarks on the speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and Other Writers. In A Commentary on Malthus’ 1798 Essay on Population as Social Theory, by Frank W. Elwell, 127–294. Lewiston, NY: Mellen.
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