Your food is global

Complex supply chains permeate even local products.

Take a typical biscuit-containing chocolate bar from a British shop, manufactured in a British factory. It contains sugar, cocoa, milk, whey, wheat, yeast, salt, palm oil and calcium sulphate (a nutritional additive) which are sourced from all the world, For instance, the salt may come from China; calcium sulphate from India; palm oil from Southeast Asia; whey from new Zealand; milk and wheat from the EU; sugar from the Caribbean; and, of course, cocoa for the actual chocolate from South America.

Produced  locally, sourced globally. Image: iStockphoto

Produced locally, sourced globally.
Image: iStockphoto

Even a more natural food such as breakfast cereals may contain many ingredients from around the world. The bulk of the cereal may be indigenous to the UK, but the dried apricots, cranberries and raisins will be from overseas, as will the Brazil nuts and other nuts in muesli-style cereals.

Furthermore, many people like to chop a banana on top of their flakes (which are typically from tropical climates) and some instead of milk use orange juice, which is also likely grown in warmer climates.

This goes for many foods, to say nothing of the (once) exotic herbs and spices that adorn our plates. Hence much of what we eat comes from abroad, or contains ingredients sourced globally even when the factory is in the UK.

Where does my food come from?

The profusion of ‘world food’ shops and specialised aisles for foreign favourites indicate that food from abroad is a fact of life for UK consumers. However, most food is sourced from the countries closest to us for obvious reasons – proximity means lower transportation costs, extra freshness, and we also have historically similar cultural tastes.

Unsurprisingly, this is a pattern likely to repeat for all individual nations across the world.

For the UK:

  • 27 countries accounted for 90% of supply of all food (valued on a raw food basis) in 2009; of this, just under half was supplied domestically from within the UK (49.5%)
  • 24 accounted for 90% of fruit and vegetable supply (the UK supplied just under a quarter)
  • Four accounted for 90% of meat and meat preparation supply (82% of this is from the UK so meat production, at least, is highly indigenous)
  • Four accounted for 90% of dairy product and bird’s egg supply (similar to meat sources, the UK supplied 81%)
  • 11 accounted for 90% of supply of cereals and cereal preparations (including rice)

So, UK food production is highly localised for meat and dairy production, and many other foods are sourced from a clutch of trading partners. The graph below looks at these trading partners in more detail.

Where the UKs food comes from. Image: Defra

Where the UK’s food comes from. Image: Defra

The graph above shows that most food imports come from our nearest neighbours – the Netherlands (6.3%), Spain (5.3%), France (3.2%), and Ireland and Germany (both 2.9%). After some other European locals comes South Africa, USA, and Brazil, demonstrating that these countries are major food-exporting nations. Then comes a long tail of countries near and far, perhaps indicating that it’s more what they offer than how far away they are that then dictates their import rank.

Lastly, it’s worth noting that a whopping 165 countries make up a significant portion (about 12%) of our food imports – making the UK’s tastes truly global and integrating it into a world economy.

The relative stability of the UK’s food imports is revealed in that by that in 2009, the UK and five other European countries accounted for around 70% of total UK food supply. Furthermore, the distribution of UK imports at continental level has changed relatively little over the last 15 years.

Overall, sourcing food from a diverse range of stable supplying countries enhances food security because shocks and surprises in the food production network do not equally affect every country at once.

Read more about the UK and food production in the blog post ‘Why should the UK grow food?

Food miles

A wide food import web means that more energy is expended bringing food to the UK. This has become more of an issue in recent years, due to concern over the greenhouse-gas emissions exacerbating climate change, which is widely predicted to negatively impact world agriculture.

Food transportation brings benefits and problems. Image: VStock

Food transportation brings benefits and problems. Image: VStock

However, the statistics above as well as published by other organisations, notably the British Retail Consortium (BRC), reveal that fears over ‘food miles’ may be overblown.

The BRC state that 75 per cent of fresh food sold in UK stores is raised or grown in the UK. Of the quarter that's imported, only 1 per cent is flown in. UK supermarkets also sell 75 per cent of the organic food bought in the UK, compared with the 1.7% sold in farmers' markets. For organic food, 88% of the carrots, 67% beef, 93% lamb, 100% milk and 100% of eggs are produced in the UK.

Life isn’t made easy for consumers in that there is no formal definition of 'local' food, and customer perceptions of 'local' varies with region and product. Furthermore, many say that food miles is an overly simplistic and misleading way to gauge the environmental impact of food distribution.

The article Food miles, climate change and consumer choice has more of food miles and analysis of food-related carbon emissions.

Sources

  1. Defra – Food statistics pocket book 2011
  2. British Retail Consortium retail myths (external link)
  3. Defra – Food security and the UK: an evidence and analysis paper