28 November 2017

Leon Estabrook and the First World Agricultural Census of 1930


An article by Professor Amalia Ribi Forclaz, Assistant Professor of International History at the Graduate Institute, provides a history of the First World Agricultural Census of 1930. It argues that the census embodied a new and ambitious attempt at producing knowledge on agriculture that went beyond the well-established imperial and transatlantic exchanges of agricultural expertise upon which much of the historical literature has focused. More details with Prof. Ribi Forclaz on her article published in the Journal of Global History.

In the article you provide a “history of the First World Agricultural Census in 1930”. Why is this census important and unique in the context of international politics and practice of agricultural development?

In the twentieth century, the modernisation of agriculture and the increase of food production became central features of multilateral efforts to achieve food security and global development. My research examines the history of agricultural modernisation schemes promoted by international organisations and scientific experts between the 1920s and 1960s, a period that has been largely neglected by the recent history of development and which yet was a fundamental turning point in the international agricultural landscape, and a precursor to the Green Revolution of the subsequent decades.

A central aspect of the history of agricultural modernisation is the preoccupation with data collection as a basis for technical and scientific cooperation and international economic coordination and planning. The First World Agricultural Census of 1930 is an early example of international ambitions to evaluate agricultural resources on a global scale. The census was an unprecedented attempt to compile global statistics on crops, livestock, and agricultural production. I use the census as a lens to combine the new history of international organisations, and its emphasis on transnational networks and flows of ideas and persons, with the history of agriculture and rural development. The census is thus an example of the formation and circulation of agricultural expertise, the standardisation of agricultural vocabulary and, last but not least, the production of information on global resources, including farm machinery, livestock, fertilizers and fodder. The debates surrounding the drafting of the census form also highlight competing statistical terminologies and methods, and ultimately they uncover the existence of competing visions of the future of world agriculture.

The article emphasizes the growing role of international expert networks in the first half of the twentieth century. What does it tell us about theory and practices of modernisation and the connections between national and international visions of rural governance?

As is well-known, the First and Second World Wars acted as catalysts for national agricultural modernisation schemes. Against a backdrop of wartime destruction, food insecurity and later the emergence of the Cold War, agricultural technological improvement came to be seen as a fundamental condition for national reconstruction, the achievement of economic and social welfare, and the stability and control of rural populations and territories. International organisations drew directly on these experiences and on existing expert networks which came to play a crucial role in the internationalisation and standardisation of agricultural and rural development programmes and of ideas and practices of agricultural modernisation schemes that after 1945 formed the cornerstone of an emerging global agricultural regime which remains highly relevant today. In this context, it is important to note that the role played by wartime relief agencies such as the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) in the circulation of agricultural expertise, knowledge and technology remains relatively under-researched (although its humanitarian aspects – especially with regard to helping displaced persons – are well-known). I believe that the history of organisations such as the Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome can only be understood by tracking national and international pre-war and wartime relief operations and agricultural expert networks. International agricultural development schemes did not simply emerge with the United Nations after 1945. Rather, the 1920s and 1930s can be considered a laboratory for later rural development programmes.

Could you tell us more about why the particular American expertise as well as particular institutions and individuals became identifiable to you in mapping the international efforts towards the pursuit of global agricultural data collection?

I had been working on the archives of the International Institute of Agriculture (IIA) and other international bodies such as the Agricultural Service of the International Labour Organization for a few years when I came across the name of Leon Estabrook, a self-taught American agricultural statistician who in the 1920s embarked on a world tour to convince all national governments of the world, including their colonial dependencies, to participate in a common agricultural census that would use the same questionnaire and terminology, and that would be taken everywhere at the same time so as to enable comparison of agricultural resources and production methods over the entire globe. I was very much intrigued by Estabrook’s persona and also by this universalising project and wanted to find out more about the motivations for the census, its institutional background and its implementation. As luck would have it, Estabrook was not only an enthusiastic traveller but also a keen writer. He left several boxes of untapped archival records, including a very detailed diary of his voyages, scientific networks and local encounters. He also regularly wrote to friends and families, outlining his views about the future of agricultural production and trade but also more personal impressions of his travels. It is not everyday one finds such a rich source and after years of working through dry and often bureaucratic minutes and reports I could not resist following his footsteps and his large network, which led me to the Rockefeller Foundation (the organisation that funded the census) and to the United States Department of Agriculture.

Given that the phenomenon discussed here addresses the visions of rural governance from “above”, did any concerns of grassroots agricultural movements compare or contrast with these?

Of course, data collection was only one aspect of interwar international cooperation. There were many international civil servants, reformers and experts taking a much more social approach to agricultural modernisation and rural progress by debating questions such as labour conditions, education, health and housing. Thus, I have come across various international grassroots efforts to organise and improve the working and living conditions of people in agriculture. One such grassroots movement – which I have written about in a forthcoming book – is the Associated Country Women of the World (ACWW). It has institutional links with the IIA and the Rockefeller Foundation, though not with the 1930 census directly. The women who were active in the ACWW approached the problem of rural modernisation from a different angle than agricultural statisticians and economists did. They concentrated on questions of welfare and the social, material but also mental well-being of rural populations. Interestingly, however, they came to similar conclusions, namely that knowledge and science were key to improvements and that agricultural undertakings needed to be run like a small business that was not only geared towards subsistence but also towards economic growth so as to ensure security.

The census process was also a bone of contention in international circles, as you have shown. Could you tell more about how you methodologically uncovered these tensions and nuances?

By crosschecking a variety of hitherto unexploited national and international archival materials, from the Rockefeller archives in New York to the records housed by the IIA in Rome, to national archives and, last but not least, the 5,000 page manuscript diary of the director of the census, Leon Estabrook, that I found in the Agricultural Library in Washington.

What kind of consensus was reached in the end, and how did the project pan out in terms of the outcomes for understanding the history of agriculture and development?

In spite of Estabrook’s best efforts, the census took on a different form for every participating country and the results varied accordingly. Where fresh data was obtained by making records for each farm, as was the case in a number of western European countries and the United States, results were generally detailed and precise. In some places, such as India, previously existing data was complemented by specific investigations. In other instances, notably new states such as Czechoslovakia or colonial territories such as Egypt or Mozambique, this was the first time that an agricultural census had ever been conducted and the data provided was based on approximate estimates by the colonial administrations. There is no doubt that the census project extended the availability of agricultural statistics by unifying their scope and by inciting governments to coordinate their surveys temporally. Beyond the individual censuses, however, there was almost no synthesis and the project was in many ways abandoned before completion. Plans to interpret the data and to correlate the information with other data on demand and consumption were dropped because of financial constraints and international tensions. Even though the census’s usefulness for the formulation of agricultural economic policies in the interwar years was arguably minimal, it had long-term implications for international discussions on rural development. Thus, despite varying results and success, it worked as a homogenising tool in which a wide variety of societies were defined by their agricultural outputs. Indeed, the 1930 census set a crucial precedent for further global surveys. After the Second World War, the IIA was transformed into and rebranded as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Following the model of the interwar census, from 1950 onwards the FAO’s World Programme for the Census of Agriculture asked states to carry out agricultural surveys every ten years.

In other words, the census was an attempt at bringing order into the supposedly heterogeneous, unorganised and unchartered rural world. It was seen as a way to create a global picture of worldwide agricultural resources that could be used for a systematic review of the current and prospective state of nationally and regionally defined agricultural practices. Thus, the survey also contributed to what James C. Scott has called the “administrative ordering of nature and society”.

In the longer run, what kinds of notions of statistical expertise emerged in these debates and how were responses to these processes ultimately negotiated?

The census went through various drafts, and differences in approaches had to be negotiated at a range of international meetings before compromises could be reached. The final questionnaire that was used for data gathering very much reflected this compromise between competing visions of what data was actually relevant for international trade and policymaking.

Could you tell us more about the projected discourse of “wealth, prosperity and welfare on a global scale” which you discuss in the article, especially in terms of its implications for international developmental interventions? What can historical examination and methods contribute towards this understanding?

From the 1950s onwards rural development programmes emerged as a central aspect of international politics and policy. Hunger, poverty, and population dynamics became the new buzzwords of international policy, and the seeming inefficiency of “traditional” agricultural methods and systems of tenure in Asia and Africa moved to the centre of FAO technical assistance programmes and are still central to many UN organisations today. Historical examples such as this one can help us understand the role played by enumerative data processes in the international development regime.

Where does this history of the census lead your personal as well as broader agendas of research?

Locating the significance of this census, as done in this article, is only a nascent attempt at showcasing agriculture as a primary domain of the global history of development and modernisation in the twentieth century. In my future work I want to combine a mapping of the international history of agricultural knowledge production with the negotiation of this knowledge in specific local areas. I also would like to draw particular attention to non-Western agricultural practices and ideas and how they affected Western “development knowledge”. The aim is to arrive at a more “symmetrical” understanding of the global history of rural development between 1920 and 1960 without glossing over differences of power.

Full citation of the article: Ribi Forclaz, Amalia. ”Agriculture, American Expertise, and the Quest for Global Data: Leon Estabrook and the First World Agricultural Census of 1930.” Journal of Global History 11, no. 1 (2016): 44–65. doi: 10.1017/S1740022815000340

Illustration: by Max Petit, early twentieth century (scan old postcard) [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.


Interview by Aditya Kiran Kakati, PhD Candidate in International History