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Countryside at the crossroads. The Agriculture Act 2020.

Countryside at the crossroads – an ABC of agricultural change. 
Village Hope & Agricultural Christian Fellowship webinar, 30 October 2021

The Agriculture Act 2020, John Wibberley [1]View John’s slides here


Biblical pointers for agricultural policy
The Bible gives us much guidance in these matters (Jones, 1991; Jones & Martin, 2015):

  • Psalm 150:6 ‘Let everything that has breath praise the LORD. Praise the LORD’, I take as our agricultural mission statement, urging the wonder of our Creator, His creation and our commission to manage it, as in Psalm 8;
  • Psalm 115:16 ‘the heavens are the LORD’s but the earth He has given to men- – we are His tenants;
  • Genesis 1:26-28 sets out the Creation Mandate or Dominion Covenant, whereby we are given stewardship of the earth and its creatures, for which we are accountable as managers (Luke 16:2) as Jesus taught – as well as His Shepherd and Vine analogies (John 10 and 15);
  • Providing bread for the hungry delights God’s heart (Isaiah 58:7) and is central (Matthew 6:11);
  • God cares  for the land and nurtures it – Psalm 65:9-13 but His ultimate blessing calls for our repentance and cooperation (Psalm 67), and is for His Glory (Revelation.22:1-2).

The UK Agriculture Act 2020
This enabling legislation signalled the biggest change in UK agricultural policy since the 1947 Act which initiated a production drive after World War II. Meanwhile, our membership of the EU CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) for some 45 years involved intervention buying of production surpluses plus farm subsidies to regulate markets but keep consumer food prices down. Still the UK is only 64% self-sufficient in home-produced food. CAP costs rose unsustainably to half EU budget by 2016 when Britain voted to leave the EU.

Since 1947, agricultural change on UK farms has involved the following.

  • Declining farmer and farm-worker numbers with increasing stress per farmer.
  • Increasing production per farm, per hectare, and per animal yet tightening margins.
  • Loss of land to roads and urbanisation.
  • Loss of farmland birds and other wildlife and their habitats.
  • Increasing debate about the pros and cons of alternative farming systems.
  • Persistence of hunger in c.1 billion people – though a reducing % of world population.
  • Opportunities for various farm-based diversification of businesses and public interest.

Productivity came to be measured by tonnes or litres of agricultural product per person employed. Mechanisation much improved that ratio but did not properly consider the downward energy-efficiency trends accompanying input-fuelled advancing yields, nor the consequences of disconnecting people from the land. By the 1960s, the success of this was beginning to call into question its environmental stewardship impacts. Many have sounded the trumpet for more environmentally friendly approaches to agricultural management that recognise the fundamental importance of soil biology for nutrient cycling and carbon capture, from Balfour (1943), to Russell (1957), Stapledon (1964), Wookey (1987), Kassam (2020).

Many in British farming have been influenced not only by the sense that God cares for land (Psalm 65:9-13) but also by adages such as below.

‘Live as though you will die tomorrow; farm as though you will farm forever’ and the balancing Swift’s (1726) quote: ‘whoever could make two ears of corn or two blades of grass to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind and do more essential service to his country than the whole race of politicians put together.’

This latter imperative has all too often led to production and productivity trumping environmental care. UK Farmers are working together in LEAF (Linking Environment And Farming), and in the Nature Friendly Farming Network, The National Trust in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland (the world’s largest conservation charity with some 5.5M members) is working hard with its 1800 farming tenants to deliver landscape-scale environmental management alongside profitable farming. Meanwhile, on Knepp Castle Estate of some 1400 hectares in West Sussex, bold decisions to pursue wilding were taken in 2000 with well-documented outcomes (Tree, 2018). Such wilding is not advocated for most farms where ample food production must still be provided.

Agricultural policy change
UK farmers will be paid for ‘public goods’, such as better air and water quality, improved soil health, higher animal welfare standards, public access to the countryside and measures to reduce flooding. The 2020 Agriculture Act replaces the subsidy system of Direct Payments to farmers based on total amount of land farmed – which was latterly called BPS (Basic Payments Scheme). Those payments were skewed in favour of the largest landowners but not linked to any specific public benefits. (However, home-produced UK food is a public benefit indeed!). The top 10% of recipients have received almost 50% of total payments, while the bottom 20% received just 2%. Accordingly, fairer reductions are tabulated below:-

Annual Direct Payment

Up to £30,000



£150,000 or more

% Payment cut in 2021





The UK government is working together with farmers to design, develop and trial the new approach called the Environmental Land Management System (ELMS). Current focus in autumn 2021 is on developing a ‘Soil Health Action Plan’ and further work will focus on animal welfare aspects. Meanwhile, landscape-scale trialling is going on, including on Exmoor where The Exmoor Society pioneered work with the Exmoor Hill Farming Network to produce a ‘Register of Natural Capital’ (Helm, 2015; Deane & Walker, 2018; Deane, 2018). The case has to be made to both policymakers and the wider public for policies and practices that favour integral management with viable farm livelihoods at their heart (Wibberley, 2020). As the wise Women’s Institute poster of 1998 said, ‘Farming is Everyone’s business.’ Farming is integral to ecosystem security for water + food + energy + livelihoods + geopolitical stability. Thus, ecosystem security must take account of all factors relevant to sustainable life on earth with agriculture having a crucial role. Farming systems based on agro-ecology deliver such integration, notably including Conservation Agriculture (Kassam, 2020).

Key provisions of UK Agriculture Act 2020 & the ELMS’ ‘Public Money for Public Goods’

  • 7-year transition from EU CAP (half EU budget!)
  • ‘Green’ Brexit towards more environmentally-friendly trading
  • Measures to increase productivity sustainably
  • Increased Research & Development funding, especially farmer-led work
  • Farmer collaboration encouraged – to care for a landscape-scale
  • Improving soil health, animal welfare and other indicators of good husbandry
  • Sustainable production along with a lower environmental ‘footprint’
  • Risk management & a retirees/new entrants scheme (2021-27)

There are some 500 million farming families worldwide still maintaining the crucial linkage between family and farm that has sustained life on earth hitherto. As the finite nature of unmanaged environmental resources becomes clearer, we hope farming’s central role should be more obvious for:-

  • Global ecosystem security policy, with more national food sovereignty recovered from the WTO (World Trade Organisation);
  • Biodiversity and landscape conservation to care at scale for the countryside, integrating trees but not swamping it with them;
  • Achieving sustainable rural livelihoods within relational, well-connected rural communities.

Impacts of agricultural change at farm level
Many farmers are worried. Change of any kind can be threatening. More use is being made of services such as FCN (Farming Community Network) – originally launched in 1995 by the ACF (Agricultural Christian Fellowship) and the ARC (Arthur Rank Centre at the National Agricultural Centre at Stoneleigh); Jones et al 2015. FCN seeks to respond to farm family stresses, to enable farm succession discussions at an early stage and to encourage farmers to meet one another in groups. Access to FCN for confidential help is by one-to-one contacts, through Market Chaplaincies and a telephone helpline (03000 111999). The Agriculture Act 2020 makes limited provision to encourage farmer retirement of those who need to do so, and provides incentives for training new entrants. It is clear that better TB control is vital in these days, as are initiatives to catalyse farmer networks and to strengthen farmer sovereignty in decision-making, and voluntary collaboration for resilience using natural capital (Nyangweso & Wibberley, 2020). Natural capital includes not only the natural physical and biological resources but especially also people, their skills and entrepreneurship (as encouraged by The Exmoor Society’s Pinnacle Award). Good practice in environmental management is only deliverable through positive relationships with farmers and local people. Engaging with the over-arching experience and wisdom of rural communities is vital, with specialists alongside to inform this practical core on particular issues.

Farmer-generated innovations have always been crucial to practical agricultural progress. However, great caution needs to be exercised regarding GM (Genetically-Modified) technology – and indeed all ‘silver bullets’ backed by any over-ardent vested interests. Worldwide experience suggests that farmers are the best judges of appropriate agricultural innovations. A principal issue with GM is its potential to erode farmers’ control over their natural resources, including timely availability of seeds and intergenerational selection from a wide gene pool of crops and livestock breeds. Technological innovations need objective, precautionary research. Encouragement of genuinely pasture-fed livestock systems is warranted, as is work with cross-bred livestock. Digital technologies offer means to monitor both agricultural and environmental indicators of genuine progress. There are many opportunities ahead.

Opportunities ahead

  • Celebrate environment-care by farmers which is happening already
  • Pursue longer tenancies (these are only c.3 years average duration now!)
  • Improve landlord-tenant cooperation
  • Re-evaluate & Re-envision each farm’s progress
  • Bench-mark with best practitioners: via FARMS Groups?
  • Enact integral management on a  landscape-scale
  • Enjoy complex management challenges with better community engagement needed!
  • Conserve Farmer Managerial Sovereignty
  • Delegate work (using NGOs, local communities ‘citizen science’, & commerce too)
  • Collaborate with other farmers in learning and earning
  • ‘Let everything that has breath praise the Lord’ Psalm 150:6

Agricultural productivity and responsible environmental management are mandated by the Bible, are mutually inclusive, and require policies that integrate them as simply as is possible. The UK needs to lead in improving sustainability of global farming practices and farm livelihoods, rewarding farmers for comprehensive ecosystem security: food, timber, clean water, carbon capture (and soil nitrogen), and in deriving other income streams from therapeutic, recreational/touristic and heritage/cultural values of land. The Agriculture Act 2020 provides opportunities for all this to happen and policymakers seem genuinely keen to engage with farmers and land management practitioners in seeking to develop it to best serve these ends. May we in ACF, VH, FCN and other farming help charities stand with farmers in adjusting to these changes for both public benefit and the well-being of their own families and rural communities.

John Wibberley


References & further reading

Balfour, E.B. (1943). The Living Soil. (Faber & Faber, London,248 pp.)

Deane, R. – compiler. (2018). Exmoor’s Ambition: Our transformative proposal for sustaining and enhancing Exmoor’s farmed landscapes and communities after Brexit. 37 pp. (EHFN/ENPA). 

Deane, R. and Walker, A. (2018). Towards a Register of Exmoor’s Natural Capital. (Exmoor Society, 24 pp.)

Defra (2011). The Natural Choice: securing the value of nature. (TSO Norwich UK 78 pp.)

Helm, D. (2015). Natural Capital: Valuing the Planet. (Yale Univ.Press, 268 pp.)

IAASTD (2009) Agriculture at a Crossroads. International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development Global Report, Island Press, Washington, DC.

Jones, C.R. (1991) Biblical Signposts for Agricultural Policy (ACF, 69 pp.)

Jones, C.R. & Martin, J. (2015) Honey & Thistles: Biblical Wisdom for Renewal of Farming 138 pp. (

Jones, C.R., Jones, J., Ursell, D.J., Warren, B. and Wibberley, E.J. (2015). Supporting Farming Families through FCN, with particular reference to Devon, England. pp. 113-120. In Healthy Agriculture for a Healthy World, Vol.2 (Applied Papers), Proceedings of International Farm Management Assoc. 20th Congress (IFMA20) Quebec, Canada, July 2015.

Kassam, A. – ed. (2020). Advances in Conservation Agriculture – Vol.1 Systems & Science 575 pp; Vol.2 Practice & Benefits. 472 pp (Burleigh Dodds, Cambridge, UK).

King, F.H. (1910; 1977 reprint) Farmers of Forty Centuries. (Rodale Press, USA, 441 pp.)

Lawton, J. (2010). Making Space for Nature: a review of England’s wildlife sites and ecological network Report to Defra,UK Government.

Nyangweso, P. and Wibberley, E.J. (2020). Farmer Managerial Sovereignty. International Journal of Agricultural Management 9, 142-148.

Rose Regeneration. (2013). Putting the Spotlight on Farming Communities: the role of farmer networks in challenging areas. (RASE/Rose Regeneration/All Party Parliamentary Group on Hill Farming, 32 pp.)

Russell, E.J. (1957). The World of the Soil. (Collins New Naturalist, 285 pp.)

Stapledon, R.G. (1964). Human Ecology. (Faber & Faber, London, 240 pp.)

Swift, J. (1726). Gulliver’s Travels. (112 pp.)

Tree, I. (2018). Wilding. (Picador, Macmillan, UK, 362 pp.)

Wibberley, E.J. (1989). Cereal Husbandry. (Farming Press, UK & Diamond Enterprises, USA, 258 pp.)

Wibberley, E.J. (2003) Integration towards Ethical Agriculture : challenges, principles and practice in international perspective. (pp. 203-248 In Biblical Holism & Agriculture : Cultivating our Roots, eds. Evans, D., Vos, R. & Wright, K., William Carey Library, Pasadena CA, USA, 299 pp.).

Wibberley, E.J. (2014). Treasuring Trees for Agricultural Management Transformation. International Journal of Agricultural Management 3(3):127-134.

Wibberley, E.J. (2020) Integrating Agricultural & Environmental Management Policy: a UK perspective. International Journal of Agricultural Management 9, 149-153.

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