Mapping the UK Food System – A Review


By Prof. Michael Winter

Hasnain, S., Ingram, J. and Zurek, M. 2020. Mapping the UK Food System – a report for the UKRI Transforming UK Food Systems Programme. Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford, Oxford. ISBN 978-1-874370-81-9.

The full report is available on the Global Food Security programme website, where it is supported by an interactive online resource.

This is an impressive piece of work which pulls together a wide range of data on the economic value of the UK food system, the number of enterprises, and levels of employment, providing an assessment of the overall shape of the UK food system and a foundation for further research. It also gathers together in an appendix a goodly number of diagrammatic conceptual representations of the food system. Not easy to copy these from a pdf file (and we might be in breach of copyright if we did!), so take a look at the original and the various attempts made by academics to conceptualise how this complex system works.

Some of the report highlights are as follows:

  • The UK agri-food sector is a major driver of economic growth. Overall, in 2018 it contributed £121 billion or 9.4% to national Gross Value Added (GVA) and the wider system employed 4.3 million people.
  • Food and drink accounts for 20% of the total manufacturing sector by turnover and employs over 430,000 people in the UK.
  • Concentration in the UK economy has increased with time. There are ten large food retailers. Together, the top five food manufacturers have a £30 billion turnover. There are two main UK big players in contract catering while US multinationals dominate fast food alongside SMEs.
  • While the food sector is the biggest employer in the UK, 30% of food manufacturing employees are from the EU (63% of which are in meat processing plants). Other sectors in food employment have low wages, and there is an increasing issue of a lack of appropriate workplace skills.
  •  The UK has the third highest volume sales of ultra-processed foods per capita out of 80 high and middle-income countries, and the most processed diet of countries in Europe. This contributes to the 63% of UK adults being obese or overweight.
  •  Land use is dominated by animal and cereal production (e.g. 52% of croppable area in the UK is covered with cereals).
  • The UK heavily relies on external food sources, particularly the EU. 53% of food consumed in the UK in 2018 was produced domestically, followed by 23% sourced from the EU. There are financial deficits in all food categories, except for drink (due to whisky exports). The UK is importing food that can be grown here, albeit often dictated by seasonality.
  •  Although there are enormous economic benefits from the UK food system, it faces multiple challenges. Diets too rich in fat, sugar, and meat and too low in fruit and vegetables are contributing to obesity and related health problems, especially in deprived households. Unsustainable production methods are driving biodiversity loss, soil degradation, pollution, water scarcity and climate change in both the UK and overseas. Poor working conditions persist, especially for low-skilled labour in the food sector. Meanwhile, stresses and shocks including climate change, COVID-19, and EU-exit highlight the need for greater resilience. It is clear that transformational change is needed, but this must balance with complex trade-offs and competing needs and interests across the food system.


Let me also highlight a few key findings from the main body of the report itself:



Number of people employed Number of enterprises Economic summary £billion

























1,831,000 135,000


The UK Food System (Figures 2, 3 & 7 of the report)


In addition, there are those employed in the production of packaging (a total of 85,000) and logistics (a total of 2,540,000), for which it is impossible from official data to disaggregate food-related elements. 

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