Beginnings

The importance of sound agricultural policy has been recognized since earliest times in all cultures. In China in the sixth century BC, Lao Tze wrote:

There is nothing more important than agriculture in governing people and serving the Heaven.

In addition, he admonished rulers who neglected the agricultural sector:

The imperial palaces are magnificent, while the farmland is allowed to lie in waste and the granaries are empty. The governors are dressed elegantly, wearing sharp swords and eating luxurious food. The properties they own are more than enough; they show off like robbers. How far away from the Tao!1

In other traditions, hallowed texts also remind us of our intimate, ineluctable links with the earth. In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the Lord said, 'dust you are, to dust you shall return'.

1. Lao Tze, Taode Jing, Chapters 53 and 59.

In Shakespeare, death is clothed in dust: 'And all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death'.

The prospects for life itself are also tied to the earth in our earliest writings. In Genesis (13:16), it is said: 'if anyone could count the dust upon the ground, then he could count your descendants'. To put it in a slightly different way, it has been the addition of water to dust - yielding mud - that has sustained the increase of human life on the planet.

Mankind's ability to nurture mud has made possible the creation of what we know as society, and the economy:

Mud, the ubiquitous mud of the alluvial plains of southern Mesopotamia, was the material from which the world's first civilization was built. Mud, formed into uniform rectangular blocks, was used in the construction of houses, temples, and city walls. Mud, rolled flat into tablets, was the medium on which citizens recorded their commercial transactions, their laws, and their religious rituals. Mud, formed and fired, produced cooking and storage utensils. Mud, molded into human and animal figurines, represented the early sculptors' view of the world. But above all, mud provided the fertile topsoil that nourished the crops on which cities depended.

Agricultural Development Policy Concepts and Experiences. R. D. Norton

© 2004 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

ISBNs: 0-470-85778-1 (HB) 0-470-85779-X (PB) FAO Edition: 92-5-104875-4

If the stands of wheat and barley failed, so did the city. And not just through lack of food. An agricultural surplus freed farmers from the field, allowing them to become artisans or traders; the organization of essential irrigation projects provided a hierarchy of rulers and administrators; the export of grain paid for the import of luxury goods; and the subsequent rise in wealth attracted immigrants and merchants from the surrounding countryside. Jobs, government, things to buy, and people to meet - the hallmarks of any modern city - all, ultimately, depended on mud.2

This basic condition of human existence was not lost on early economic theorists. As noted in a recent lecture by D. Gale Johnson, Adam Smith perceived 'a significant relationship between productivity improvement in agriculture and the wealth of nations'.3 He quoted the following observation by Smith:

.. . when by the improvement and cultivation of land the labor of one family can provide food for two, the labor of half the society becomes sufficient to provide food for the whole. The other half, therefore, or at least the greater part of them, can be employed in providing other things, or in satisfying the other wants and fancies of mankind.4

In fact, the performance of agriculture over the centuries has made a fundamental contribution to present standards of living:

Generally speaking, labor productivity growth in agriculture has been greater than in other sectors of the economies in the industrial countries. . .. From 1967-68 to 1983-84, for 17 of 18 industrial countries for which there were [adequate] data. . . . the unweighted average annual growth rate for agriculture was 4.3 percent compared to 2.6 percent for other sectors. .. . The growth of total factor productivity in the OECD countries in agriculture has been greater than in manufacturing during the past quarter century or more. The difference has not been small: one study indicates that total factor productivity growth was approximately 2.7 percent in agriculture compared to 1.5 percent in manufacturing for the period from 1960 to 1990 5

Thus, increases in agricultural productivity have constituted a principal source of improvements in overall economic well-being in modern societies. The sector's productivity has increased more rapidly than that of manufacturing both in terms of output per unit of labor and in terms of output per unit of all factors. This has not only put more food on tables in cities as well as countrysides but, as will be shown, it has contributed to more rapid economic growth and employment creation overall.

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