How has farming changed over the last 250 years?


Agriculture has gone through seismic changes, driven by everything from science and technology, to population pressures, World Wars, and shifts in the global economy. Wordwide, farming is now worth $2.4 trillion – but how did it get to where it is now? Guest writer, Jez Fredenburgh finds out.

Farming revolutions and wars

Throughout history, big changes in farming have heralded huge shifts in society. By the end of the 19th Century, British farming had gone through its Second Agricultural Revolution, with wealthy lords turfing smaller farmers off public land, causing a huge migration to cities and paving the way for the Industrial Revolution.

Farming became an altogether different beast as land was drained or cleared, and high-yielding arable crops, such as wheat and barley, were introduced with crop rotations and nitrogen-fixing legumes, all boosting yields like never before.

The invention of the internal-combustion engine saw tractors replace horses, and the invention of the Haber-Bosch technique created chemical fertilisers – both huge moments which saw a further intensification of farming.

During the Second World War, countries sought to increase their self-sufficiency, as trading routes were redrawn. In Britain, the government poured cash into food production and farmers could suddenly afford more chemical fertilisers and newly-developed pesticides.

This rapidly increased production and the value of gross agricultural output in Britain rose by an incredible two-thirds between 1939-1942. In Scotland, the area under tillage increased by 639,000 acres in four years, with wheat and barley production more than doubling.

Farmers ramped up production even more in the years to come, when the UK joined the European Economic Community. Under Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy, farmers were paid to concentrate on food production, including ripping up hedges to increase land area. From 1940-80, the UK went from 30% to 80% self-sufficient in crops, while becoming a net exporter of grains.

At the same time, the so-called ‘Green Revolution’ was taking off in big developing countries, with the use of more chemical inputs, irrigation technologies, and mechanisation. Huge leaps forward were made in plant breeding and genetics, largely led by American Norman Borlaug, who helped develop high-yielding, disease-resistant wheat varieties in Mexico.

As a result of all these changes, global cereal production increased by 280% between 1961 and 2014. Today, the world can produce almost three times as much cereal from a given area of land than it did in 1961.

Becoming globally competitive

In the 20th and 21st Centuries, these changes coincided with rapid globalisation, underpinned by trade deals and an increasingly interwoven global food chain. Farmers were suddenly confronted with international markets and had to squeeze even more out of their land to remain competitive.

As food production itself became less of a worry, the EU’s farming subsidies changed tack and started paying farmers for environmental benefits. But while payments protected farmers against the full force of global markets, they couldn’t protect them totally, and other pressures mounted too.

These included a 3900% increase on the price of English farmland in just 50 years and the rise of supermarkets which have concentrated power in the supply chain away from farmers. Many farms haven’t survived this process and there has been a consolidation of land, with smaller farm holdings being bought up by bigger farmers and also now, farming companies.

But this globalised, more professional farming sector, has also capitalised on opportunities.

Scotland’s quality food is now known the world over and food and drink exports total around £5 billion annually, driven largely by whisky. Key agricultural products such as seed potatoes, beef genetics, and malting barley are also highly sought after.

Farming today

Agriculture is now a $2.4trillion global industry, involving small-scale farmers right through to huge multinational companies, five of which now control 60% of the global seed market and around 70% of the total pesticides market.

In the UK, the agri-food sector is now worth nearly £122 billion and employs four million people. Around 80% of Scotland’s land mass is under agricultural production, with its farmers, crofters and growers producing around £2.9 billion of output a year, and the industry directly employing around 67,000 people.

Agriculture keeps moving ahead and many UK farms are becoming high-tech: Robots automatically milk cows; drones and apps check crop disease; farm management software captures and compares data; satellites guide combine harvesters; and precision technology saves water and chemical inputs.

But challenges are ahead, particularly environmentally and climatically. Farmers are plugging into this though, and some say we may be on the cusp of a fourth agricultural revolution, with a focus on climate change, sustainability, and biodiversity. So watch this space – this next change could be a big one too.

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