Skip to navigation Skip to content

UK increasingly 'outsourcing' environmental impacts of its food supply

Rice fields in Indonesia (courtesy Robin Matthews)
"We were able to develop an approach where we could identify the source countries and calculate the local cropland footprint, as well as the greenhouse gases emitted.

A new study from researchers at the James Hutton Institute, the University of Aberdeen, the Rowett Institute of Nutrition and Health and the Alpen-Adria University in Vienna shows that the UK’s food self-sufficiency has decreased substantially over recent decades, as more food and animal feed are imported compared to 25 years ago. The study, published today in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, also shows that the environmental impact of the UK’s food is increasingly “outsourced” to other countries.

The research team calculated how much cropland was needed to produce UK’s food and animal feed (the “cropland footprint”), and the emission of greenhouse gas emissions from synthetic and organic fertilizers, rice cultivation and land use change. The results show that the total cropland footprint increased by 23% and that almost 70% of the total cropland footprint is now overseas. The same trend was observed for greenhouse gas emissions: they are increasingly emitted abroad (from 50% in 1987 to 62% in 2008). Part of the decrease of domestic impact can be attributed to higher yields and lower fertilizer use on UK croplands, but by importing more food and animal feed, the overall effect is that the UK is increasingly outsourcing its environmental impact to other countries.

The quantification of the environmental consequences of UK food imports is novel. “The problem with official trade statistics is that they don’t always report the place of production,” explains Henri de Ruiter, a Ph.D. student at the James Hutton Institute and the University of Aberdeen, and lead author of the study. “For instance, according to official trade statistics, Britain imports bananas from Europe, which must be re-exports because Europe does not produce bananas. As a consequence, it is not easy to calculate the environmental impact of bananas imported from Europe because we don’t know their origin. In collaboration with researchers from the Alpen-Adria University in Vienna, we were able to develop an approach where we could identify the source countries and calculate the local cropland footprint, as well as the greenhouse gases emitted.”

The authors of the study emphasize that to reduce the environmental impact of the UK’s food supply, it is not enough to consider only the domestic environmental consequences of food production. “Because our current food system is so globalized in nature, it is important to consider the global effects related to our food consumption”, said Henri de Ruiter.

The James Hutton Institute and the University of Aberdeen are at the forefront of the research on global food security and the environmental impact of food. The current study was the result of a Ph.D. project funded by both organisations, focussing on the relation between UK food consumption and global land use. Recently, the University of Aberdeen and the James Hutton Institute were awarded prestigious funding for a major project, called Delivering Food Security on Limited Land (DEVIL), allowing them to research the global links between food security and land use change, together with other global leaders in the field.

Paper: Global cropland and greenhouse gas impacts of UK food supply are increasingly located overseas. Henri de Ruiter, Jennie I. Macdiarmid, Robin B. Matthews, Thomas Kastner, Pete Smith. Journal of the Royal Society Interface, January 2016, Volume 13, Issue 114.

More information from: Bernardo Rodriguez-Salcedo, Media and External Relations Coordinator, James Hutton Institute, Tel: +44 (0)1224 395089 (direct line), +44 (0)344 928 5428 (switchboard) or 07791 193918 (mobile).

More information from: 

Bernardo Rodriguez-Salcedo, Media Manager, Tel: +44 (0)1224 395089 (direct line), +44 (0)344 928 5428 (switchboard) or +44 (0)7791 193918 (mobile).


Printed from /news/uk-increasingly-outsourcing-environmental-impacts-its-food-supply on 22/03/19 08:15:32 PM

The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.