Radical Agriculture in the UK: Soil as Social Property (Part Two)

UK Agriculture in the Past

“The UK has long been a net importer of food” — DEFRA, 2008

A key point in the history of agriculture in the UK was enclosure, the culmination of class warfare beginning from the fifteenth century in England that rose to prominence between 1750 and 1860 (Fotopoulos, 1997). Wealthy landlords forced the rural poor off land that was previously commonly owned, transforming peasants into a landless working class who only had their labour to sell (Patel, 2008). The landowning nobility were transformed into capitalist landlords and helped to kick-start a process of dispossession that would lead to the industrial revolution (Out of the Woods, 2014). By 1800 England’s agricultural social structure was a unique tripartition, consisting of large landowners, small-scale capitalist farmers, and agricultural proletarians (Shaw-Taylor, 2012), with agrarian capitalism dominating family farming. This “unique rural society” was “characterized by exceptional inequality” (Allen, 1992: 1). Incidentally, the sites where capitalist farming predominated were areas which were “the most prosperous between the eleventh and sixteenth centuries”, a pattern which reflected “the quality of the agricultural land” (Shaw-Taylor, 2005), a literal example of capitalism robbing the soil from the labourer.

As this social structure evolved agricultural land became more centralised through the process of “engrossment” which was implemented alongside enclosure (Shaw-Taylor, 2012), which despite claims to the contrary did not increase agricultural output (Allen, 1992). This process of centralisation was abetted by technological revolutions in cheap transport and economies of scale (Heinberg, 2007) so increasingly control of the land fit for agriculture in the UK was in the hands of the wealthy minority, as well as a standardised profit-seeking management and their appointed experts (McKay et al, 2008).

Total production of foodstuffs in the UK has risen consistently over time, thanks to an “upward trend in both agricultural labour productivity and land productivity” (Apostolides et al., 2008; Koning et al., 2008).


British Agricultural Output between 1250-1899. Data from Apostolides et al (2008)

From Koning et al (2008).

From Koning et al (2008).

However, in more recent years the yield increases have been due largely to the “massive injections of fossil energy” associated with modern agriculture, such as synthetic nitrogen fertilisers and pesticides (Arizpe et al., 2011). These will be described in more detail later.

As production has increased both employment in the agricultural sector and self-sufficiency of food production has declined in the UK (Maynard, 2008). As DEFRA (2008) reminds us, the UK “has long been a net importer of food”, with the industrial revolution creating an increased dependence on international trade to secure food supplies (Kirwan and Maye, 2013) as well as undertaking “guano imperialism” in order to secure fertilisers for its own soils (Saito, 2014). These historical trends have converged to produce the (relatively) stable, modernised, market-based system of agriculture we find in the present.

Part Three coming soon

Part One


  • Allen, R. C. (1992). Enclosure and the Yeoman.Clarendon Press, Oxford.
  • Apostolides, A., Broadberry, S., Campbell, B., Overton, M., van Leeuwen, B. (2008). English Agricultural Output and Labour Productivity, 1250- 1850: some preliminary estimates. http://www.basvanleeuwen.net/bestanden/agriclongrun1250to1850.pdf Accessed 27 October 2015.
  • Arizpe, N., Giampietro, M., Ramos-Martin, J. (2011). Food security and fossil energy dependence: an international comparison of the use of fossil energy in agriculture (1991-2003). Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences 30, 45-63.
  • DEFRA (2008). Ensuring the UK’s Food Security in a Changing World. http://www.ifr.ac.uk/waste/Reports/DEFRA-Ensuring-UK-Food-Security-in-a-changing-world-170708.pdf Accessed 23 October 2015.
  • Fotopoulos, T. (1997). Towards an Inclusive Democracy. Cassell, London and New York.
  • Heinberg, R. (2007). What will we eat as the oil runs out? http://www.resilience.org/stories/2007-12-03/what-will-we-eat-oil-runs-out Accessed 22 October 2015.
  • Kirwan, J., Maye, D. (2013). Food security framings within the UK and the integration of local food systems. Journal of Rural Studies 29, 91–100.
  • Koning, N. B. J., Van Ittersum, M. K., Becx, G. A., Van Boekel, M. A. J. S., Brandenburg, W. A., Van Den Broek, J. A., Goudriaan, J., Van Hofwegen, G., Jongeneel, R. A., Schiere, J. B., Smies, M. (2008). Long-term global availability of food: continued abundance or new scarcity? NJAS – Wageningen Journal of Life Sciences 55 (3), 229–292.
  • Maynard, R. (2008). An inconvenient truth about food – Neither secure nor resilient. https://www.soilassociation.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=EttWlupviYA%3D&tabid=215 Accessed 22 October 2015.
  • McKay, I., Elkin, G., Neal, D., Boraas, E. (2008). An Anarchist FAQ. http://www.infoshop.org/AnarchistFAQSectionE3 Accessed 27 October 2015.
  • Out of the Woods (2014). Class struggles, climate change, and the origins of modern agriculture. https://libcom.org/blog/class-struggles-climate-change-origins-modern-agriculture-18082014 Accessed 27 October 2015.
  • Patel, R. (2008). Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System. Melville House Publishing, New York.
  • Saito, K. (2014). The Emergence of Marx’s Critique of Modern Agriculture: Ecological Insights from His Excerpt Notebooks. Monthly Review 66 (5), 25-46.
  • Shaw-Taylor, L. (2005). Family farms and capitalist farms in mid nineteenth-century England. The Agricultural History Review 53 (2), 158-191.
  • Shaw-Taylor, L. (2012). The rise of agrarian capitalism and the decline of family farming in England. http://www.geog.cam.ac.uk/research/projects/occupations/abstracts/paper7.pdf Accessed 27 October 2015.

6 thoughts on “Radical Agriculture in the UK: Soil as Social Property (Part Two)

  1. Pingback: Radical Agriculture in the UK: Soil as Social Property (Part Three) | Fighting The Biocrisis

  2. Pingback: Radical Agriculture in the UK: Soil as Social Property (Part Three) | Fighting The Biocrisis

  3. Pingback: Radical Agriculture in the UK: Soil as Social Property (Part Four) | Fighting The Biocrisis

  4. Pingback: Radical Agriculture in the UK: Soil as Social Property (Part Four) | Fighting The Biocrisis

  5. Pingback: Radical Agriculture in the UK: Soil as Social Property (Part Five) | Fighting The Biocrisis

  6. Pingback: Radical Agriculture in the UK: Soil as Social Property (Part Six) | Fighting The Biocrisis

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