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The Importance of Agriculture to the UK

Civilisation and society

Impotance of agriculture - first farmersOver 6000 years ago the first farmers started clearing the native wildwood that covered the UK. They grew crops, reared livestock and learned techniques for storing produce so that food could be made available throughout the year. Later they settled permanently in particular areas and with adequate food supplies started to develop other skills; civilisation was born.

Over the following millennia Britain’s farmers shaped the countryside we now see – and, in providing food, freed others from the tie of the land. New crafts and trades flourished, spawning the cultural diversity that has become society today.

But for centuries agriculture was also the principal industry. In the Middle Ages around 30% of national income was derived from the wool clip alone - many of our most important towns and cities owe their heritage to the trade of that period. Later as wool was processed and converted to cloth, innovation abounded and the seeds of the industrial revolution were sown.

During the 19th Century industrialisation brought an end to the agrarian society. An improving transport infrastructure provided fresh food for fast growing towns so that by 1850 more than 50% of the population had become urban dwellers. But while agriculture remained fundamental in the supply of foodstuffs its influence waned in the economy as a whole - by 1900 its share of national income had fallen to just 6%. Over the last century the same trends have continued and today few need to be directly engaged in agriculture.

Food security and self-sufficiency

Food SecurityFood security exists when the population has ready access to safe and sufficient food such that a normal healthy life can be maintained. It is a measure of the success of agriculture that over the past five decades we have been able to take food security for granted.

In part this has been driven by the technological revolution that agriculture embraced after World War 2. Output was increased through mechanisation, improved stock and plant breeding, the greater use of fertiliser and pesticides and a move away from more extensive forms of production. Coupled with similar gains worldwide, agricultural production for a relatively short period exceeded demand.

However around the turn of the millennium the worldwide balance between supply and demand shifted. A series of poorer harvests coincided with increased demand for foodstuffs such that stocks declined and in 2007 the price of many agricultural commodities doubled.

In the UK, apparent government indifference towards the productivity of domestic agriculture has seen self-sufficiency (the proportion of demand met by local production) in all foods drop to just 58% by 2006. The Government argues that self-sufficiency is a misleading concept in relation to food security and that the UK can import the foodstuffs it requires. However this argument is dangerous on two counts.

Firstly; we cannot be certain that supplies will exist elsewhere in the world. Climate change is already disrupting production systems and there are plenty of examples from history to concern us - the most striking being the Great Famine. In 1315 a marked change to the climate throughout the whole of Northern Europe brought seven years of poor harvests and led to widespread famine - 10% of the population died from starvation and malnutrition.

Secondly; even if plentiful supplies do exist elsewhere in the world, it is by no means certain that we will be able to obtain them. This is simply a matter of logistics – it is not possible to move large quantities of food across continents; not only does the infrastructure to do so not exist, but it can easily be disrupted by circumstances beyond our control.

Food security is a function of self-sufficiency. The higher a country’s self sufficiency, the lower the likelihood that its food security will be compromised. All of which argues for strong domestic production and reinforces the importance of agriculture to the UK.

Food quality

Food qualityBeyond food security there is the question of food quality – a subjective measure of consumer preference.

Nearly all food in the UK is produced under quality assurance schemes that guarantee production, environmental and welfare standards. Assurance schemes monitor and independently verify farmers’ systems as well as providing full traceability. The baseline “Little Red Tractor” scheme is widely recognised but enhanced schemes offer additional choice. However, irrespective of the rigour of verified assurance, UK agriculture leads on other criteria.

Farm animal welfare standards in the UK are particularly high with the UK consistently leading the way in the adoption of new welfare legislation. This has not always been beneficial to UK agriculture. In the pig sector the abolition of sow stalls saw costs rise and competitiveness decline long before similar legislation was adopted elsewhere.

Demanding requirements also exist in the arable and horticultural sectors as well as further up the food chain where hygiene requirements are notoriously tough. And it is this framework of protection that underpins the quality of UK produce - consumers are well supported when choosing food of UK origin.

Food that is produced close to its marketplace also arrives fresher and without the compromise or cost that long transportation brings. Seasonal produce of local origin is also particularly sustainable carrying a very low carbon footprint. Keeping agriculture as close as practical to its dependant societies is eminently sensible.

On value, UK agriculture also has an exceptional record. Food price inflation has been consistently low since the 1970’s such that the proportion of household expenditure committed to food has dramatically declined. The provision of cheap food helps lift the poor out of poverty and ensures that the health benefits of eating plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables are available to all. Without the benefit of local supply, prices would have remained significantly higher.

The economy

EconomyRelative to the economy as a whole, agriculture has been declining for centuries and today the industry generates only a tiny proportion of national income - around 0.5%. Amongst other developed countries this proportion is particularly low and reflects the lack of strategic importance attached to agriculture by the political establishment.

Relative to our overall food needs agriculture has also been in recent decline. In 2005 the balance of trade in foodstuffs stood at a deficit of £13.5Bn, up from £7.0Bn a decade earlier. Such deficits add to pressure on £ sterling with inflationary consequences for the economy as a whole - surprisingly the government has remained disinterested. Nonetheless agriculture remains important.

Over half a million people are directly engaged in agriculture either in a full or part-time capacity. This is a significant part of overall rural employment and one that helps to maintain rural communities. Furthermore, in response to tough financial conditions many farms have diversified letting redundant buildings and developing their own alternative enterprises. These have provided additional employment outside the agricultural sector.

Agriculture is at the start of the UK food chain. Even though the value of agricultural produce is relatively low, a complex infrastructure of processing, distribution and retailing are subsequently dependent upon it. The value of these sectors to the wider economy is significant with Defra estimating their contribution at £80 billion gross value added (GVA) and in total employing 4.25 million people. Without a domestic agriculture, the financial viability of a large part of the food chain would be under threat.

Rural tourism, estimated to be worth around £14 billion GVA per annum to the UK economy and employing a further 400,000 people, is closely dependant on agriculture for the countryside that draws visitors from across the world. It is only through a viable agriculture that our landscape, its precious habitats and our agrarian heritage are maintained for the benefit of rural tourism.

The environment and climate change

MiscanthusIn a globalised world, local supply and demand decisions have far reaching consequences such that environmental protection has to be seen holistically. So while UK agriculture is undoubtedly a contributor of waste and pollution, it is almost certain that UK practice is environmentally well ahead of alternative sources of supply. Thus moves to extensify agriculture on environmental grounds may be ultimately counter-productive. Besides UK agriculture has a good record on environmental care. Diffuse pollution levels are low and agricultural land plays a significant and growing role in utilising waste as a fertiliser. Increasingly composted green wastes and sewage sludges are returned to farmland as fertiliser.

The convenience of fossil fuels cannot be overstated as an energy source but their supply is ultimately limited and their use is polluting, primarily through the release of CO2. We should be uncomfortable with this for no other reason than millions of years of atmospheric CO2 that was absorbed to create fossil fuels, is now through man’s use being released back within the space of a century. Such use is unsustainable which is why it is vital for agriculture to commence with a new revolution, harnessing today’s sunlight, through plants, for the production of useful energy.

The revolution has only just begun and the adoption of crops for biofuels and biomass has shown how the net CO2 contribution back into the atmosphere can be significantly lowered. This is good news but it is still only a start. In due course the science and understanding will improve allowing more efficient conversion and encouraging unproductive land to be brought back into a usefully productive role.

The countryside

WoodlandBlessed with a temperate climate that favours both agriculture and forestry, the countryside has been shaped by our predecessors’ need for food, materials, energy and recreation. Today the same criteria remain, with agriculture the dominant use.

Around 18.7 million hectares of the UK are classified as agricultural land - over 70% of the total land area. Crops, grassland and woodland mix with other land uses to create a spectacularly rich matrix of habitats and features that are the sum of 6000 years worth of man’s activity. It’s a countryside that captures the imagination with its diversity – but one that is nonetheless deeply productive.

And just as the features of the countryside were fashioned by our farming ancestors over many generations, so today it is farmers who spend hundreds of hours of unpaid time in its maintenance. Conservatively this work has been assessed as being worth around £500 million per annum. But often, just as valuable is what is not done. Old barns and sheds may look unsightly and derelict but they provide happy homes for barn owls and swallows – leaving them undeveloped carries a high opportunity cost.

Further evidence of the scale of countryside management undertaken by the agricultural community comes from the take up of agri-environment schemes. Of particular note is the Entry Level Scheme (ELS) - a low bureaucracy approach introduced in 2004 that encourages farmers to get on with managing specific features and habitats. By the end of 2007 some 4.4 million hectares of land were being managed under this scheme in England alone.

But while farmers are responsible for the management and maintenance of much of the UK’s countryside, it is only by considering a more fundamental question that we can come to see the true value of the role of agriculture in the countryside. Just how different would things be without agriculture?

Forget a walk with a view or a drive through undulating topography and changing land cover; they disappear. Arable and pasture land without the practice of farming quickly reverts to scrub and decades on, dense woodland becomes the sole land cover. Without agriculture, precious and popular landscapes like The Lake District or the Downs are lost – agriculture alone provides the framework for their existence.

The future


  • The world’s population is growing fast and expected to reach 9 billion people within 40 years.
  • Increasing wealth and changing patterns of consumption are leading to a rising per capita, demand for food.
  • Most of the world’s potential arable land is already under cultivation.
  • The supply of fertiliser is limited and now expensive.
  • Climate change, of whatever origin, through drought, desertification and extreme temperature is limiting the productive capacity of some farm land.
  • Energy crops are required to substitute the increasingly expensive cost of fossil fuels.
  • The revolution of using plants to produce useful non food crops, ranging from plastics to pharmaceuticals is just beginning.


It’s right to preserve every possible acre of agricultural land for future generations and to start developing the agricultural science that will help us deal with the challenges ahead. For a small densely populated island, agriculture in the UK has never been more important.

Statistics for Land use

Land use
Agricultural Area
(000 hectares)
18 311 18 557 18 507 18 465 18 431 18 486 18 770 18 692 18 697 18 296 18 282
(000 hectares)
4 665 4 456 4 574 4 476 4 589 4 421 4 397 4 440 4 735 4 607 4 610
Set Aside
(000 hectares)
567 800 612 681 560 559 466 440
(000 hectares)
604 843 644 718 589 699 663 599 194 244 174
Grass <5 years
(000 hectares)
1 226 1 205 1 243 1 200 1 246 1 193 1 137 1 176 1 141 1 241 1 232
Grass >5 years
(000 hectares)
5 363 5 584 5 519 5 683 5 620 5 711 5 967 5 965 6 036 5 865 5 925
Rough Grazing sole right
(000 hectares)
4 445 4 435 4 488 4 329 4 326 4 354 4 491 4 319 4 359 4 131 4 055
Other land and farm woodland
(000 hectares)
779 801 806 821 825 872 874 954 994 972 1 059
Total land on agricultural holdings
(000 hectares)
17 083 17 324 17 272 17 228 17 194 17 250 17 529 17 453 17 459 17 060 17 054
Rough grazing common
(000 hectares)
1 228 1 232 1 234 1 236 1 237 1 236 1 241 1 238 1 238 1 237 1 228