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From The Economist, October 4th 1997

Stranded on the farm?

Industrialisation is the standard measure of economic development. But there is no reason why agriculture should hold back an economy


“ECONOMIC development” is more a slogan than a term with a precise definition. But in the thinking of politicians and economists around the world, it has long been synonymous with “industrialisation”. Today’s advanced economies grew rich by shifting resources from agriculture into industry, so it is no wonder that emerging economies from India to Brazil have sought to emulate that trick by fostering manufacturing.

This belief in the importance of industry has come into conflict with one of the fashions of the 1990s, freer trade. In principle, reductions in trade barriers could open new markets for manufactured exports from developing countries. But there is no assurance that this will happen. Under free trade, after all, each country will tend to specialize in those products in which it is relatively most efficient, compared with other countries. This might mean that some countries will end up producing coffee and cattle rather than computers and cars. If they get “stuck” in agriculture, are they condemned to poverty and slow growth?

This is a question that some economists have taken seriously. Kiminori Matsuyama, a professor at Northwestern University in America, showed several years ago* that under free trade countries richly endowed with arable land and natural resources might grow more slowly than others. Such natural wealth would encourage the growth of agriculture at the expense of industry. This matters because in Mr Matsuyama’s model manufacturing is special. He assumes there are economies of scale in manufacturing: the more resources employed in the sector, the faster productivity will grow. But is it not possible that agriculture, too, can have large productivity improvements as more capital and other resources are invested? If this were to happen, agriculture could have a special role in stimulating growth, just as Mr Matsuyama assumes manufacturing does.

The fruits of freer trade

The empirical evidence on this point is mixed. As Mr Matsuyama’s model assumes, the relative importance of manufacturing in Latin America has been shrinking over the last decade as trade liberalisation has taken hold (see chart). However, the consequences may not be as bleak as he expected. This is because, so far, productivity growth in agriculture has been as fast as in manufacturing.


Chile provides a good test case. Since the country opened up to trade in 1976, the relative size of its manufacturing sector has declined. Manufacturing accounted for 27% of Chile’s GDP in 1973; in 1995 its share was only 16.8%. Agriculture, on the other hand, has not declined—as traditional models of development would have predicted—but instead has grown modestly as a share of GDP.

The decline of manufacturing has not meant slow growth, however. Chile’s economy has expanded at an average rate of 7.2% since 1987. Exports have been the engine of growth and agricultural products have been star performers. Chile went from being a small player in the global fruit market, exporting just apples in the 1960s, to become one of the world’s largest fruit exporters in the 1990s.

Such exports may not be manufactured, but the businesses that make and export them have been using increasingly sophisticated production technology and management methods. Although table grapes are by far the main fruit export, Chile began exporting wines in a significant way in the 1980s and achieving important world market shares in the 1990s. Similarly, fish exports, once produced almost entirely by an ocean-going fleet, are now seeing the growth of salmon farms. This sort of technological advance has meant marked productivity increases in agriculture and higher incomes.

So does agriculture offer an alternative path of economic development? “We used to think that countries would develop by climbing ladders of production that would go from textiles, to clothing, to toys and eventually electronics,” says Ricardo Hausmann, chief economist at the Inter-American Development Bank. “Now we know that there are different ladders and countries can grow by going from fruit to wine, furniture, salmon . . .”

Fair enough, say some advocates of industrial policy. But even if agriculture is highly productive, emerging economies need to industrialise because there is a limit to the demand for foodstuffs. This contention is based on the well-established finding known as “Engel’s law”, which holds that people tend to spend a smaller share of their budgets on food as their incomes rise. Engel’s law, however, does not mean that agriculture will, sooner or later, become a slow-growth sector. Rather, it implies that producers must constantly adapt to changing tastes: wealthier societies may consume less manioc and potatoes, but spend more on beef, fruits and oven-ready frozen foods.

There is one final argument against the idea that countries will end up getting “stuck” in agriculture. This worry assumes that a country’s comparative advantage is static, so that a country that grows bananas today will inevitably grow bananas in 20 years’ time. This need not be the case. If a country does what it does best and sees its incomes grow as a result, it can afford better education and infrastructure. These, in turn, will give it an advantage in other products in future.

Just as few could have predicted the dramatic growth spurt of East Asian economies 30 years ago, it is hard to forecast today how open, agriculturally-rich economies will continue to develop. It may be that they will move towards a service economy without ever having a large industrial sector. Or they may find new ways to prosper from their natural resources. Although open trade may make it difficult for them to establish certain kinds of industries, this does not necessarily doom them to slow growth. But it does not guarantee fast growth either. Their own economic policies matter, but so do the trade policies of wealthier nations. Many of these are more protectionist towards farm products than towards manufactured goods. No wonder officials in many emerging economies worry about being stranded on the farm.

* “Agricultural Productivity, Comparative Advantage, and Economic Growth”. Journal of Economic Theory 58, 1992.

© Copyright 1997 The Economist Newspaper Limited. All Rights Reserved