In 2015 the National Farmers Union (NFU) published a scary statistic, suggesting that over half the UK’s food will need to come from overseas in a generation’s time.
- Are we on course for this to happen?
- Why does the UK import so much of its food?
- Can we just not grow more food here?
- Has Brexit had an impact on food levels?
- And do the public care if their food was grown here or not?
Join us as we look at the facts in further detail.
The state of play – interesting statistics about UK food supply
- The UK supplies 55% of the food consumed in the UK. The rest is imported from other countries
- 26% of food consumed in the UK comes from the EU
- Only 1% of the food consumed in the UK comes from Australasia – predominantly wine, beef and lamb
- The three most imported food products to the UK are fruit and vegetables, meat and beverages
- The UK imports most of its beef from Ireland, wine from France and pork products from Denmark
- The UK imports more produce than it exports, with the exception of beverages (this is primarily down to the export of Scottish whisky to other countries)
Why does so much of our food come from outside of the UK?
It is interesting to see that 45% of the food consumed in the UK is not grown or created here.
Food comes from other countries for a number of different reasons.
The UK climate
The UK climate is not suited to growing a wide range of food. The damp and cold seasons are only suited to growing certain fruits and vegetables all year round. For example, the UK produces between 70% and 90% of cabbage and cauliflower supplies, depending on the season.
Sometimes output can vary hugely depending on the weather. For example, cereal production in the UK dipped significantly in 2001, 2007, 2012 and 2013, due to unseasonable cold snaps. When this happens, the UK must import extra produce from other countries to meet demand.
Food and beverages that can’t be cultivated here (for example, exotic fruit like bananas, papayas and mangoes) have to be imported regardless.
The demand for out of season produce
If we want food out of season, we have to rely on countries with different climates growing it.
For example, if we want strawberries outside of the summer season, they need to be imported from countries like Spain, Israel and Egypt. If we want to make a blackberry crumble out of season, the fruit will often be imported from countries like Mexico.
Not as much farmland available as in other countries
The UK is extremely densely populated. To give you an example, the UK has roughly the same population as France, but France is twice the size.
This means that the UK does not have as much farmland for growing food.
It is often cheaper to import foods from other countries rather than grow them locally. For example, although the UK can grow tomatoes, it is a very resource-intensive process.
Instead, the country imports a lot of tomatoes from the Netherlands as even with import duties, this works out cheaper.
Fewer farmers than there once were
There are now fewer farmers in the UK – with a 22% decrease in the number of farmers since 2011. This is because being a farmer is a less profitable career option than it once was.
Older farmers are now retiring, with the younger generation no longer wanting to work in agriculture.
Sometimes produce levels fall for unprecedented reasons, and supplies need to be brought in from overseas.
A severe outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in 2001 meant that over six million cows and sheep had to be culled. This meant that meat had to be imported.
Will Brexit and the coronavirus change things?
Now that the UK has left the EU, you may be wondering if this has had an impact on where our food comes from.
Food now costs slightly more to import, due to higher trade tariffs and a slightly weaker pound. However, this has not caused a significant impact on supply and demand.
However, if we had left under a no-deal Brexit, things could have been a lot worse. The World Trade Organisation (WTO) would have had to introduce food import tariffs of 22%. This would mean higher prices at the supermarkets and wholesalers, which would have to be passed onto the customer.
COVID-19 also played a part too. In the summer of 2020, the agricultural workers who would usually come to the UK to pick fruit and vegetables were banned from travelling, meaning that produce could not be picked. This meant the UK had to import more produce to cover demand from customers.
Brexit and COVID-19 do look like they have made British consumers more likely to buy home-grown produce. According to a survey by Barclays, 63% of people say they are buying more British food and drink, with over seven million respondents saying they now regularly visit their local farm shop.
In conclusion – the future of food imports in the UK
The UK will never be wholly self-sufficient when it comes to food and drink production.
Even if we drastically reduced the amount of meat and dairy we ate, there would still be products that we could not grow in the country. There would also be circumstances where we would have to import if production levels fell.
However, small changes are now being made. Customers are making more of an effort to eat seasonally, with 59% of people saying they are more likely to order a dish at a restaurant if it is labelled as being made with seasonal produce.
This may make offering UK-grown produce at your restaurant a great option. Even if it costs a little more, customers are likely to pay extra. A quarter of diners would be willing to spend as much as 25% more on their meal if it contains British produce.