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The Red Queen and the Hard Reds: Productivity Growth in American Wheat, 1800-1940

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  • Alan L. Olmstead
  • Paul W. Rhode

Abstract

The standard treatment of U.S. agriculture asserts that, before the 1930s, productivity growth was almost exclusively the result of mechanization rather than biological innovations. This paper shows that, to the contrary, U.S. wheat production witnessed a biological revolution during the 19th and early 20th centuries with wholesale changes in the varieties grown and cultural practices employed. Without these changes, vast expanses of the wheat belt could not have sustained commercial production and yields everywhere would have plummeted due to the increasing severity of insects, diseases, and weeds. Our revised estimates of Parker and Klein's productivity calculations indicate that biological innovations account for roughly one-half of labor productivity growth between 1839 and 1909.

Suggested Citation

  • Alan L. Olmstead & Paul W. Rhode, 2002. "The Red Queen and the Hard Reds: Productivity Growth in American Wheat, 1800-1940," NBER Working Papers 8863, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:8863
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    Cited by:

    1. Joseph H. Davis & Christopher Hanes & Paul W. Rhode, 2009. "Harvests and Business Cycles in Nineteenth-Century America," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 124(4), pages 1675-1727.
    2. Richard Hornbeck, 2010. "Barbed Wire: Property Rights and Agricultural Development," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 125(2), pages 767-810.
    3. Izdebski, Adam & Koloch, Grzegorz & Słoczyński, Tymon & Tycner, Marta, 2016. "On the use of palynological data in economic history: New methods and an application to agricultural output in Central Europe, 0–2000AD," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 59(C), pages 17-39.
    4. Pardey, Philip G. & Koo, Bonwoo & Nottenburg, Carol, 2004. "Creating, Protecting, And Using Crop Biotechnologies Worldwide In An Era Of Intellectual Property," Staff Papers 13600, University of Minnesota, Department of Applied Economics.
    5. Pardey, Philip G. & Alston, Julian M. & Chan-Kang, Connie & Magalhães, Eduardo C. & Vosti, Stephen A., 2002. "Assessing and attributing the benefits from varietal improvement research: evidence from Embrapa, Brazil," EPTD discussion papers 95, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).
    6. Cormac Ó Gráda, 2011. "Forum 2011," Development and Change, International Institute of Social Studies, vol. 42(1), pages 49-69, January.
    7. Olmstead, Alan L. & Rhode, Paul W., 2008. "Biological Innovation and Productivity Growth in the Antebellum Cotton Economy," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 68(04), pages 1123-1171, December.
    8. Philip G. Pardey & Julian M. Alston & Connie Chan-Kang & Eduardo C. Magalhães & Stephen A. Vosti, 2006. "International and Institutional R&D Spillovers: Attribution of Benefits among Sources for Brazil's New Crop Varieties," American Journal of Agricultural Economics, Agricultural and Applied Economics Association, vol. 88(1), pages 104-123.
    9. Mundlak, Yair, 2003. "Economic Growth: Lessons From Two Centuries Of American Agriculture," Discussion Papers 14986, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Department of Agricultural Economics and Management.
    10. Julian M. Alston & William J. Martin & Philip G. Pardey, 2014. "Influences of Agricultural Technology on the Size and Importance of Food Price Variability," NBER Chapters,in: The Economics of Food Price Volatility, pages 13-54 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    11. Edward L. Glaeser, 2013. "A Nation of Gamblers: Real Estate Speculation and American History," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 103(3), pages 1-42, May.
    12. Lichtenberg, Erik, 2004. "Some Hard Truths About Agriculture and the Environment," Agricultural and Resource Economics Review, Cambridge University Press, vol. 33(01), pages 24-33, April.
    13. Pardey, Philip G. & Alston, Julian M. & Ruttan, Vernon W., 2010. "The Economics of Innovation and Technical Change in Agriculture," Handbook of the Economics of Innovation, Elsevier.
    14. Joseph Davis & Vanguard Group; Christopher Hanes, 2004. "Primary Sector Shocks and Early American Industrialization," 2004 Meeting Papers 154, Society for Economic Dynamics.
    15. Alston, Julian M. & Pardey, Philip G. & Ruttan, Vernon W., 2008. "Research Lags Revisited: Concepts and Evidence from U.S. Agriculture," Staff Papers 50091, University of Minnesota, Department of Applied Economics.
    16. Brunt, Liam & Cannon, Edmund, 2015. "Variations in the price and quality of English grain, 1750–1914: Quantitative evidence and empirical implications," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 58(C), pages 74-92.
    17. Sharp, Paul & Weisdorf, Jacob, 2013. "Globalization revisited: Market integration and the wheat trade between North America and Britain from the eighteenth century," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 50(1), pages 88-98.
    18. Wright, Brian D. & Pardey, Philip G. & Nottenburg, Carol & Koo, Bonwoo, 2007. "Agricultural Innovation: Investments and Incentives," Handbook of Agricultural Economics, Elsevier.
    19. Rajabrata Banerjee & Martin Shanahan, 2016. "The Contribution of Wheat to Australian Agriculture from 1861 to 1939," Australian Economic History Review, Economic History Society of Australia and New Zealand, vol. 56(2), pages 125-150, July.
    20. Parman, John, 2012. "Good schools make good neighbors: Human capital spillovers in early 20th century agriculture," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 49(3), pages 316-334.
    21. Edward L. Glaeser, 2013. "A Nation Of Gamblers: Real Estate Speculation And American History," NBER Working Papers 18825, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • N5 - Economic History - - Agriculture, Natural Resources, Environment and Extractive Industries
    • Q1 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - Agriculture

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