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Key farming moments during The Queen's reign

At the helm of the nation for 70 years, The Queen’s reign spanned many historic events, as well as changes in the countryside. Hannah Binns and Abi Kay of Farmers Guardian explore some of UK agriculture’s key moments during her time on the throne.


1950s


Wartime farming produced innovations in mechanisation and productivity, with the rise of tractors and plant protection products.

The Government stopped controlling food prices after World War II, but the process of food derationing, started in 1948, made slow progress until September 1953, when then Food Minister Gwilym Lloyd-George derationed sugar.

The following year saw butter, margarine, cooking fat, cheese, meat and bacon derationed.

There was also a boom in self-service supermarkets following the opening of the London Co-operative Society store in Manor Park in January 1948, with different shops opening up across Britain 10 years later.


NFU head of food and farming Philip Hambling said: "There have been huge shifts in the food retail landscape over the past 70 years, accelerated by enormous competition in the marketplace by emerging brands that we recognise as major retailers today. That competition for market share has changed the way we shop by removing costs to serve and helped make the UK a global leader in food affordability, availability and quality.

"The food retail market continues to evolve rapidly and recent years has seen huge growth in online, convenience and the discount retail model. The rise of the big supermarkets, followed by the discounters, has seen a concentration of volume and buying power in far fewer hands – a trend mirrored in retail suppliers.

"How we shop and how the food we produce gets to the public will continue to change and as farmer and growers’ relationships with the supply chain and consumers evolve, we need to ensure buying power is not abused."


1960s


In 1964 the UK Parliament passed the Plant Varieties and Seeds Act to allow regulation of the sale of plants.


Samantha Brooke, chief executive of the British Society of Plant Breeders, said the move enabled plant breeders to protect the innovations they had created in developing new and improved varieties for UK farmers.

"This in turn has led to the UK having one of the most successful plant breeding industries globally, offering continuous improvements in new varieties of all species, including higher yields, disease and pest resistance, shorter straw or stems and adaptation to the UK climate," she added.


1970s


In 1973 the UK joined the European Economic Community (EEC), with then Prime Minister Edward Heath optimistic that membership would bring prosperity to the country.

For agriculture, the move meant individual commodities were allocated a price across all member states under the Common Agricultural Policy, maintained by intervention as well as import tariffs.


Speaking to Farmers Guardian in 2017, former NFU president Lord Henry Plumb said he felt joining the community would allow farmers to make a living.

"Prices in the EEC were much higher, and in those early days, the market was more buoyant in most other countries than it was in Britain," he said.

"We were more vulnerable to importing products than many of the other countries. We imported a lot of our products from way outside Europe – butter and lamb from New Zealand for instance."


1980s


Milk quotas were introduced in April 1984, initially for a five-year period, to address the structural oversupply on the EU market from the Common Agricultural Policy that led to infamous milk lakes and butter mountains.


Each producer had a fixed quota with a ‘superlevy’ payable for those who exceeded it, but subsequent changes meant they only paid it when the member state surpassed its national quota.

Dairy analyst Chris Walkland said: "Their imposition fundamentally changed the direction of travel for many farm businesses - some who were dairy farmers gave up, while others who wanted to stay in the industry had a significant new cost if they wanted to expand, and needed to buy quota in order to do so.

"The free market for quota in the UK, unlike others, ensured those producers who could afford to expand could, and this meant that our industry was not as constrained as others, such as Ireland."

In December 1988, then junior Health Minister Edwina Currie told the public most of the UK’s egg production was infected with salmonella during an ITN News interview, causing eggs sales to plummet.

At the time, Farmers Guardian reported the British Egg Industry Council were contemplating legal action against Ms Currie.

And the lack of response from Ms Currie about retracting her statement saw then NFU president Sir Simon Gourlay launch a stinging attack, accusing the Government of negligence.

"I find it incomprehensible that a Government forever preaching the virtue of market forces should causally watch a whole market orientated sector of our economy decimated because it refuses to force a publicity seeking junior Minister to retract her remark," he said.


1990s


March 20, 1996 was when the UK Government acknowledged a link between BSE and the human form of the degenerative disease CJD, which led to a worldwide ban on British beef exports a week later.


The ban was lifted on Sunday, August 1, 1999, but Farmers Guardian reported producers’ celebrations quickly turned to ‘frustration and anger’ when France and Germany decided to keep it in place.

"British farmers have worked tirelessly complying with the extremely rigorous and stringent safety checks imposed on us by the European Commission. We have done all this and more only to be told that Germany is still not satisfied," then NFU deputy president Tim Bennett said.


2000s


The UK Parliament passed the Gangmasters (Licencing) Act, requiring all labour agencies to have a licence to operate and adhere to proper labour practice standards.


Jack Ward, British Growers Association chief executive, said while the Act was not massively significant for growers, it helped to tackle the exploitation of labour supplied to farms and created a better environment for everyone involved.


2010s


On June 23, 2016, the British people created a political earthquake, with the shock vote to leave the EU, after 43 years of membership.


The bitterly contested campaign divided the farming community at the time, with leave and remain positions entrenched.

It has since kickstarted an agricultural policy revolution in all four corners of the UK, as each nation looks to build its own replacement for the Common Agricultural Policy.

Farmers in England and Wales are set to have direct support replaced by payments for public goods, while those in Scotland and Northern Ireland will continue to have access to headage payments and other kinds of subsidy.

In 2019, the NFU launched its net zero by 2040 ambition for agriculture at the Oxford Farming Conference - a target which will have far-reaching and not yet fully understood implications for the sector.

Addressing the conference, NFU president Minette Batters said: "A combination of policies and practises are needed to achieve this aim and the NFU is looking to build upon its work with industry-led initiatives, such as the Greenhouse Gas Action Plan, to help deliver this ambition."


2020s


The start of this decade has been rocky, with the Covid-19 pandemic beginning in 2020.


As the service sector locked down in March, food supply chains were thrown into chaos.

At one point, more than a million litres of unwanted milk were being produced across the UK every day and some farmers were getting paid just 15p per litre.

Llyr Griffiths, a fourth generation dairy farmer from Wales and Freshways supplier, told Farmers Guardian in April 2020: "The situation is extremely bleak. It was heart-breaking to watch 11,500 litres of milk pouring down the drain.

"We have been told if the tanker does not turn up each day then we are to dump the milk."

Then, as the global economy began to unlock, Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022.

Before the invasion, the US Department of Agriculture expected the two countries to supply 30 per cent of the world’s wheat exports.

Ukraine is also a big exporter of corn, sunflowers, rapeseed and soya, so the conflict has rocked commodity markets across the world.

Russian influence over international gas markets has also led to an energy crisis in the UK, which has yet to reach its climax.


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