Economic Backwardness and Catching Up: Brazilian Agriculture, 1964–2014

31 Pages Posted: 15 Feb 2016

See all articles by Lee J. Alston

Lee J. Alston

Ostrom Workshop; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

Bernardo Mueller

Universidade de Brasilia

Multiple version iconThere are 2 versions of this paper

Date Written: February 2016


Alexander Gerschenkron understood the development of backward countries as a contextual process that varied from country to country depending on which perquisites were present or absent. In the past twenty years, Brazilian agriculture evolved from “backward” to an agricultural powerhouse. Its production and total factor productivity more than doubled. Brazil is in the worlds’ top five producers of coffee, soybeans, oranges, beef and corn. Yet, some segments of agriculture lag far behind. We draw on the insights of Gerschenkron and Albert Hirschman, inter alia to conceptualize the development process. As an illustrative aid we apply fitness landscapes to the process of development. Fitness landscapes are good representations of a contextual view of development. We portray the process as an evolutionary search for good designs across a large, uncertain and not pre-statable set of possibilities. In such circumstances a controlled strategy of following predetermined stages is not effective. Rather we need an approach relying on creativity and imagination to find solutions to specific problems faced by each country.

Suggested Citation

Alston, Lee J. and Mueller, Bernardo, Economic Backwardness and Catching Up: Brazilian Agriculture, 1964–2014 (February 2016). NBER Working Paper No. w21988. Available at SSRN:

Lee J. Alston (Contact Author)

Ostrom Workshop ( email )

513 N. Park Avenue
Bloomington, IN 47408–3895
United States


National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

1050 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

Bernardo Mueller

Universidade de Brasilia ( email )

Dept. de Economia
Universidade de Brasilia
Brasilia, DF 70910-900
55 61 981110349 (Phone)
55 61 3349-1303 (Fax)


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