A century of change: farming

Tractor harvesting wheat
Liz Falkingham, former editor of Farmers Guardian, now Director of Communications at the National Farmers Union, comments on the changes in farming over the last 100 years.


For many people, our interaction with farming has shrunk to the weekly shop - odd considering that agriculture provides food and jobs, while shaping the landscapes we love. "No cows = no countryside", as Country Living said in its Fair Trade for British Farmers campaign. All very different to 100 years ago, when it was common to grow vegetables and keep animals - never more so than during the Second World War's Dig for Victory. Wartime food shortages brought into sharp relief our reliance on imports. No longer could we rely on the Empire's harvest; so we plunged into food production. From the late 1930s, Britain moved from 30 per cent self-sufficiency in crops to 80 per cent by the late 1980s; cereal production increased six-fold and milk yield per cow by 65 per cent. Production and environment tilted out of balance.


The image of farmers changed from fêted wartime producers to subsidised countryside wreckers - the architects of BSE and foot-and-mouth. As an environmental lobby grew, the farming ministry MAFF became Defra - the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. In an echo of 100 years earlier, the Government looked to imports for food, and the balance of production and environment tilted the other way. So where do we go from here? A recent article entitled ‘The new dig for victory' promised "no more lawn mowing and free organic food!" With allotments in higher demand than London office space and the popularity of organic food, it's easy to think that large-scale farming is obsolete. Modern agriculture, however, has never been more important. It is charged with meeting its greatest challenge - feeding a booming global population from dwindling resources, while tackling climate change and protecting our landscape. The real fruit of a modern-day dig for victory would be a reconnection with food and its true value. That, and the chance to channel our inner land girl.


Discover more changes to the countryside over the last 100 years:

A century of change: wildlife

A century of change: our right to roam

A century of change: community

A century of change: climate change



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