The origins of the agriculture ministries may be traced to a chartered society, the Board of Agriculture, originally formed in 1793 and later renamed the Royal Agricultural Society of England in 1840), which inspired the Tithe Commutation Act 1836, the Copyhold Act 1841, and the Inclosure Act 1845. The Copyhold, Inclosure and Tithe Commissioners, who administered the machinery set up by these and subsequent Acts, were merged in 1882 in a body of Land Commissioners for England operating under the auspices of the Home Office. In 1889, responsibility passed to the newly formed Board of Agriculture, which also took over the functions of the Agricultural Department of the Privy Council Office.
Board of Agriculture, 1889-1903
The Board of Agriculture was established under the presidency of a privy councillor by the Board of Agriculture Act 1889. This provided for the transfer to the Board of the following powers and duties:
- those of the Privy Council under the Contagious Diseases (Animals) Acts and the Destructive Insects Act 1877;
- those of the Land Commission under the Acts relating to tithes, copyholds, enclosures, commons, allotments, land drainage, improvement of lands, university and college estates, glebelands and agricultural holdings; and
- those of the Commissioners of Works and Buildings in connection with the Ordnance Survey.
The Act also empowered the Board to make orders for the control of dogs, to collect statistics relating to agriculture and foresting and to inspect and aid schools, other than elementary schools, in which instruction was given in agriculture and forestry. It also provided for the transfer to the Board by Order in Council of any other powers or duties of a government department relating to agriculture or forestry and of an administrative nature. Under this provision responsibility for the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, was transferred from the Commissioners of Works and Buildings in 1903 and was managed directly by the Secretary to the Board.
Board of Agriculture and Fisheries, 1903-1919
The Board of Agriculture and Fisheries Act 1903 changed the name of the Board to the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries and transferred to it the powers and duties of the Board of Trade relating to salmon, freshwater and sea fisheries.
The Small Landholders (Scotland) Act 1911 removed to a new Board of Agriculture for Scotland all the Scottish duties of the Board except those regarding animal diseases and the Ordnance Survey. The Forestry Act 1919 transferred powers in relation to forestry to a new Forestry Commission.
Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF), 1919-1955
The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries Act 1919 converted the Board to a ministry and established representative Councils of Agriculture for England and Wales and an Agricultural Advisory Committee for the two countries combined. In 1936 the duties of the Ministry under the Tithe Acts were transferred to an independent Tithe Redemption Commission.
During the Second World War the main efforts of the Ministry were directed at increasing food production and maximising use of land and other agricultural resources. Many divisions of the Ministry suspended their activities during the war and a number of temporary divisions came into being.
During and after the Second World War there were a number of developments in the controlling and advisory duties of the Ministry. The Forestry Act 1945 transferred to the Ministry both the Forestry Commission's power to acquire land in England and Wales and the properties already vested in it. The Agriculture Act 1947 dissolved the councils and the advisory committee set up in 1919 and established an Agricultural Land Commission and Agricultural Land Tribunals. It also set up County Agricultural Executive Committees on the lines of the executive committees appointed during the war in place of the existing county council agriculture committees, with a similar structure of district and sub-committees to that established during the war.
Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF), 1955-2001
In 1955 MAF absorbed the Ministry of Food and was renamed accordingly. The many divisions were formally grouped under deputy secretaries with the composition of each group changing frequently; common services divisions and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, were the direct responsibility of the Permanent Secretary. In 1965 the functions of the Ministry in regard to common lands and allotments, the Ordnance Survey and the Forestry Commission passed to the Ministry of Land and Natural Resources. Of these duties, those relating to the Forestry Commission returned to the Ministry in 1967, while the others passed to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government.
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), 2001-
In June 2001, MAFF was merged with the environmental part of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) and with a small part of the Home Office, to form DEFRA.
DEFRA was created as the government department responsible for government policy on the environment and environmental protection, food production and standards, agriculture, fisheries and rural communities in the UK. Its central aim is sustainable development, and in association with the agriculture departments of the Scottish Executive, the National Assembly for Wales and the Northern Ireland Office, and with the Intervention Board, the department is responsible for negotiations in the EU on the common agricultural and fishing policies, and for single European market questions relating to its responsibilities. Its remit includes international agriculture and food trade policy.
The department's five strategic policies are: climate change and energy; sustainable consumption and production; the protection of natural resources and the countryside; sustainable rural communities; and sustainable farming and food, including animal health and welfare.
DEFRA is also the lead government department for emergencies in animal and plant diseases, flooding, food and water supply, dealing with the consequences of chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear incident, and certain other threats to the environment.
In October 2008, the climate team at DEFRA was merged with the energy team from the Department for Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) to create the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC).
DEFRA is also responsible for the following non-departmental public bodies and executive agencies: Animal Health; Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA); Forest Enterprise (England); Forest Research; Marine and Fisheries Agency; Rural Payments Agency; Veterinary Laboratories Agency (VLA); and Veterinary Medicines Directorate.