This chapter outlines the economic and social role of agriculture in the British countryside. It introduces the central concepts that shape our understanding of how agriculture interfaces between society and nature. In addition to this insight, the chapter explains the foundations and the rationale of the policies affecting agriculture today. The chapter aims to:

explain the notion of embeddedness, linking agriculture to wider rural issues; discuss the role of agriculture in the British rural economy; unravel the motivations and main principles of early agricultural policy in the UK; outline the main principles of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the infl uence of EU membership on the UK agricultural sector; explore the notion of multi-functional agriculture and the related policy response; and introduce the need to reconcile global and local demands on agriculture and forestry;

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Agriculture tends to provoke strong feelings amongst both urban and rural populations. In recent years, farming and farmers have appeared to be suffering something of an image problem. Farmers have been subject to a considerable amount of ‘bad press’ in the form of accusations of subsidy-induced overproduction, dumping of excess produce onto world markets (and thus making it impossible for poor countries to get a decent price for their produce), mounting environmental degradation ranging from dirtying farm lanes with manure to destroying the natural biodiversity of the British countryside and, last but not least, getting paid for producing nothing. But are these accusations justifi ed? Did the press really get its facts right? And if it did, how can one sector of the economy be allowed to wreak such havoc at so much public expense? This chapter will take a closer look at the evidence on which these accusations are based.