The following blog post is based on another conversation between Stuart ‘The Wildman’ Mabbutt (in black text) and William Mankelow (In green text). This conversation featured on an episode of their podcast: The People’s Countryside Environmental Debate Podcast. The episode, titled ‘Agricultural Controversies Unveiled’, was released on the 11th of June, 2023, and you can listen to it here on PodfollowApple PodcastsGoogle Podcasts, or Spotify.

What do you think is the most controversial change in UK agriculture?

© Savo Ilic/Adobe Stock

Stuart: “Thanks for joining us on The People’s Countryside Environmental Debate Podcast. I’m Stuart ‘The Wildman’ Mabbutt and over there is…”

William: “William Mankelow. Thanks very much for being with us.”

Stuart: “For today’s episode, we’re going to be talking about the most controversial change in UK agriculture. Now, William said before we started recording that he didn’t have much to say about this, but I’ve got something to say, so he can feed off of that.

But maybe it’s not us that has something to get off our chest about agriculture in the UK. Maybe it’s you! If somebody wants to get in touch with us, how can they do that?”

William: “They can email us at [email protected] and use the subject ‘Question we’d like you to discuss’.”

Stuart: “Or, alternatively, if they’ve got something to say about the UK agricultural situation, they can put ‘My view on UK agriculture’.

We don’t often talk about the countryside on the podcast anymore, because we cover listener questions, and these questions take us in all different directions. I get the feeling you guys are trying to challenge us as podcasters, to see where our knowledge begins and ends, and I think you’ll discover exactly that if you listen back to old episodes.

Anyway, often we have a conversation (and sometimes a debate) but we always try to explore the different sides to the argument. Generally, there’s only two of us on this podcast, so we can only explore our two sides and what we assume is another side. We also try to come up with an action our listeners can take, although sometimes the consideration of the listener’s question is an action in and of itself.

So who’s the question from and what is it William? It’s nice to have a short one for a change!”

William: “Do you want to read this one because it’s so short?”

Stuart: “No, you do it!” Stuart laughs.

William: “We’ve got very marked jobs to do.”

Stuart: “There’s a hierarchy.”

William: “Hierarchy, is it? Okay, fair enough. Remember that you’re on my podcast, though.

So, this is a question from Les in Marcham, which is a village in Oxfordshire. Les’ question is: ‘What do you think is the most controversial change in UK agriculture?’ What do you reckon, Stuart?”

© Drawing of a horse-powered thresher from a French dictionary (published in 1881)

Stuart: “Now for me – and this is going back probably to the late 1800s, early 1900s, here – that would have to be the invention of the threshing machine. Do you know what threshing is?”


Stuart: “Okay then, what’s threshing?”

William: “Threshing is a way of removing the wheat from the chaff.”

Stuart: “And what’s chaff?”

William: “The chaff is the stuff you don’t want, whereas the wheat is the stuff you want.”

Stuart: “So basically, they invented a threshing machine that separated the stems from the seed heads, but also the seed head from the seed casing, so that you were left with the raw product. But because it was brought in so quickly, it caused what you could call a countryside famine.

What used to happen was that the seed heads were separated from the stems, and then were stored for winter. In the winter, all the farm labourers and their families would manually separate out the seed from the casing. This gave them work in the winter. With the invention of the threshing machine, however, there was no work in the winter, hence a famine.”

William: “Because they couldn’t get work, they couldn’t get money, and therefore couldn’t buy food.”​​

Stuart: “You get environmental protestors shouting ‘We want change and we want it now!’. Or you get animal rights protestors shouting ‘We want the Grand National banned and we want it banned now!’. The problem is, you get these fast transitions that mean people can’t adapt, which creates problems.”
© Reuters

William: “Well, all we have to do is look at COVID times. Some people adapted very quickly; others, in a way, still haven’t adapted. I know the lockdowns aren’t happening anymore, but I definitely see individuals out and about, on buses for example, looking as though they still feel there should be a lockdown.”

Stuart: “Another example would be what happened back in the 1980s, where Maggie Thatcher said ‘We’re not going to have the coal industry in the UK anymore. We’re going to close all the mines.’. You had all the miners’ strikes, and then, when all the mines were closed, you were left with these desert towns and villages that were once mining towns. They’ve got nothing else, and they’re still feeling that effect now.

So we need to think: if we want change, how do we forge a path towards that change which takes the people who are impacted along with us? I’m not saying that the threshing machine shouldn’t have been invented, but I am saying that the way it was invented didn’t bring people along. It was driven out in the pursuit of speed and profit, not to help the farm labourers.”

William: “I think I mentioned in our last episode that AI might cause the same issue. It’s likely that AI is going to take on a lot of the jobs which people are currently paid for. One company recently said that they do all their marketing directly through AI now. They don’t employ freelancers anymore, because AI is cheaper, and it’s becoming a lot more effective too. You do have to be very specific about what you give it, though. It’s like you’re feeding a machine, but you’ve got to feed it the right things to get the right output.”

Stuart: “It’s one of these transitional moments. We might say things like: ‘I’m not going to use this bus company anymore, because they do this’, but that has an impact on more than just the company. We’re trying to get rid of the oil industry, in theory, but we’re going about it in the same way, which perhaps isn’t productive.”

William: “It reminds me of… have you seen the Shawshank Redemption?”

© Shawshank Redemption 1994

Stuart: “Yes, it keeps being repeated on the telly for some reason.”

William: “There’s a guy who’s been in prison for 40 years, or something like that, and he gets released.”

Stuart: “It’s set in the 1930, 1960s, isn’t it?”

William: “He can’t cope with the outside world because it’s changed so dramatically since his imprisonment – that’s what you kind of get. I was having a conversation with my wife recently about how if somebody was in prison 30 years ago, and they came out now, everything would be so different. In banking, for example, they’d have almost missed the whole chip and pin revolution. We’ve now gone completely into contactless payments.”

Stuart: “There’s a character in Shawshank Redemption that went into prison in the early 1900s. Then he came out in the 60s, and he just couldn’t cope. He ended up hanging himself, didn’t he?”

William: “He did, yeah. I think it’s interesting that there’s always been times where we’ve needed to adapt. COVID was obviously one of them. Things do change rapidly, just like with the threshing machine.”

Stuart: “Have you got any ideas to do with change in UK agriculture?”

William: “Recently I would say Brexit’s been a huge problem, because of subsidies from Europe. Also, it’s much harder to export to our biggest trading partners, which would be the European countries. I think that’s a big problem.”

Stuart: “Anyway, I think you were a little bit worried about this question, William. but you didn’t need to worry. The Wildman is a country boy at heart, so I was always going to dig us out of that hole.”

William: “Yeah, I knew you’d have something to talk about, because you’ve got an agricultural background. I haven’t; I’m a city boy.”

Stuart: “Many people aren’t even aware that the countryside famine occurred, but it did.”

William: “It’s a technological revolution. That sort of thing would have happened many times.”

Stuart: “Anyway, this has been The People’s Countryside Environmental Debate Podcast.”

“It has been!”

Stuart: “The question we will be tackling in the next episode is from Alec in Angel, which is in London. Is that a nice part of London? Do you know Angel?”

William: “I don’t know it very well at all. It’s on the northern line.”

Stuart: “You’re going there for a MIC’s Club meeting at some point.”

William: “I went there in May.”

Stuart: “Oh, you’ve already been! I knew you were planning on going. So, Angel is in the busy part of London, isn’t it?

William: “I think so. I didn’t think that I’d ever been to Angel until I went there in May.”

Stuart: “You didn’t really explore it. You just went to the venue.”

William: “Well, when I go to London, I like to have a bit of time exploring, just sort of visiting places which I enjoy going to.”

Stuart: “Well, Alec from Angel has sent in a question for us to answer. They’re talking about the housing sector from a slightly different angle. That’ll be available to listen to on the 13th of June at 10am, if you’re interested. Join us then! I’ve been Stuart ‘The Wildman’ Mabbutt. He’s been-”

William: “I’ve been William Mankelow. Thanks so much for listening to the podcast. You help keep us going by sending us questions and just by tuning in!”

If you’re interested in listening to The People’s Countryside Environmental Debate Podcast, you can tune in on PodfollowApple PodcastsGoogle Podcasts, or Spotify.

This transcription was created with the help of Lukas Seifurt who was a micro intern and Suzi Darrington who was a Crankstart intern, both from the University of Oxford.