The Challenges Faced by Farmers

Whilst farming as a way of providing food from a settled activity can be traced back 12,000 years, agriculture as we know it today in the United Kingdom dates back to around 1750. At this time the English population stood at about 5.7 million but was rising and agricultural output had to expand to sustain a growing population.

In response, farming initiatives quickly developed including crop rotation with legumes, replacing low-yielding plants, such as rye, with higher-yielding types such as wheat or barley and land reclamation created more areas for farming, as seen by the draining of the fenlands of eastern England, where subsistence fishing and fowling was replaced by high-intensity arable cropping. This transformation of a wilder landscape was mirrored elsewhere in the UK with clearing of woodland and the reclamation of upland pastures, lowland heath and rough grassland into arable fields or improved grassland.

By the mid‐19th century cheap imports of grain from North America had led to much arable land falling into disuse or being converted to pasture as dairy and sheep farming became more profitable But during the Second World War this reduced capacity, and the unreliability of imports, led to a shortage of food and the consequent desire for self‐sufficiency and demand for an increased standard of living after the austerity of the war led to the Agriculture Act of 1947. The aim was to maximise food production and encourage a return to farming, which had been in decline due to inadequate farming wages. This was achieved in three main ways: securing farmer incomes via an assured market and guaranteed produce prices, improving farmer/tenant security and implementing high farming standards and good practice checks.

Farming practices became increasingly intensive in the post‐war period from 1945, with a 65% decline in the number of farms, a 77% decline in farm labour and an almost fourfold increase in yield. Farms became more specialized; increased use of machinery made operations quicker and more efficient, but resulted in the removal of 50% of hedgerows.

A major consequence of the intensification of agriculture has been a dramatic reduction in landscape diversity. At the turn of the century, much of British agriculture was of a mixed character, with both stock and crop husbandry occurring on the same farm. In the agriculture boom of the 1950s, a number of factors led to the divergence of agriculture in Britain, with arable farming predominating in the east and pastoral farming in the west. Increasing use of machines meant animal labour, and hence fodder cropping (root crops and oats), was no longer required; the advent of chemical pest control and increased availability of inorganic fertilizers reduced the need for crop rotations so land could be devoted to a cash crop all year, rather than having to lie fallow for part of the season. Individual farms became larger and are continuing to grow, particularly in the arable east of the country, with the result that larger blocks of land are being managed with the same aim.

The number and extent of chemical applications increased greatly; pre 1930’s pesticides were mostly preparations of lime, copper or sulphur but by 1997 344 pesticide compounds were available. Although more recently the amount of active chemical used has declined, the number and extent of applications (a better measure of environmental impact) has increased with most fields receiving multiple treatments and potentially with up to a dozen different chemicals.

Admission to the European Economic Community in 1973 produced the next set of significant changes to an already dramatic reduction in landscape diversity, as Britain became part of the EEC’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The CAP was a system of subsidies paid to farmers to guarantee minimum levels of production, to ensure enough food across Europe for all and to ensure a fair standard of living for farm workers so very similar in aims to the Agriculture Act. Unfortunately by ignoring the rules of supply and demand, the Common Agricultural Policy was hugely wasteful, leading to overproduction and mountains of surplus produce as well as having major detrimental effects on UK wildlife, as also seen in Spain and Portugal who joined the EU in 1986.

Wheat

(C) Chris Gomerall/ 2020VISION

Today farmland covers about 69% of the UK, employs 1.5% of its workforce and contributes 0.6% of its gross value added. The UK produces less than 60% of the food it consumes. Wheat is the most common crop which provides 80% of the total wheat needed to feed the nation. There are more than 35million sheep and lambs in the UK - more sheep than any other country in Europe, with more than 90 different sheep breeds. However, farmland is on the decline in the UK. Between 2000 and 2010, we have lost about 447,790 hectares to housing, commercial parks and other urban developments and as a consequence we now only grow 75% of potatoes needed to meet UK demand compared to 110% years ago.

Widespread declines in the populations of many groups of organisms associated with farmland in Britain and north‐west Europe have been recorded. These are particularly marked amongst habitat specialists such as corncrake, lapwing and harvest mouse who cannot tolerate intensive grassland management and the loss of traditional hay meadows and increased stocking densities. Many of the species still common on farmland are habitat generalists and so more resilient, for example increased oil seed rape planting has actually benefited woodpigeon.

Whilst reduction in habitat diversity was important in the 1950s and 1960s, reduction in habitat quality is probably more important now. Frequently, agricultural land is regarded solely as just a medium between habitat islands of woodland, wetland or heath which support the species of conservation concern, demonstrating that widespread declines in wildlife populations have occurred because of agricultural intensification. Although humans have altered and influenced the environment throughout most of Europe’s post‐glacial history, the current declines are much greater and more widespread than any recorded previously. It is more critical than ever that we keep what we have left in the best possible condition – land is a finite resource and once developed or built on, it is lost for agriculture or wildlife forever.

 

In November 2020 the landmark Agriculture Bill became law. This transformative legislation sets out how farmers and land managers in England will be rewarded in future with public money for “public goods” but what does that actually mean? From this year onwards subsidies based on the size of farms will reduce over a 7 year period, transitioning farmers into a new agricultural system where money will be put towards tree planting, reducing carbon emissions, improving biodiversity, air and water quality, adapting to climate change and preserving ‘beauty, heritage and engagement’. The Bill aims to empower farmers and land managers to stay competitive, increasing productivity and maximising the potential to produce high quality food in a more sustainable way yet rewarding them properly for the good work that they can do to help achieve the goals of the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan and their commitment to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

In the longer term, technological advances in agriculture will be set against a backdrop of a changing climate. Most current climate models predict Britain will experience warmer, drier summers and warmer, wetter winters; climatic variability will also be greater, leading to more extreme weather events. Cereal yields are likely to decrease with increasing temperature, This is likely to lead to a north‐ and westward shift in arable cultivation; grassland systems may spread south and east, and crops such as sunflowers and fodder maize may become more widespread, dependent on the global economic situation. The possibility also exists for agricultural land to be used to mitigate climate change, for example using minimum tillage regimes (to reduce carbon release or combat soil erosion) or growing biofuels such as short‐rotation coppice.