As a trading nation, the UK has traditionally relied on imported food to feed its population.
Those UK food imports ensure we have a diverse array of products on our tables all year round.
It’s been many centuries since the UK was self-sufficient in food. Beginning with what was once considered luxury items like sugar and spices, to cheap wheat and grain during the 19th century, to a vast array of food items today, the contemporary UK food supply chain is a complex one that spans countries across the globe.
What food is imported to the UK?
The UK is a diverse country with varied tastes when it comes to food and drink. Over the decades we’ve grown used to being able to access a wide range of high-quality goods at affordable prices. This diversity is built on imported food, encompassing a broad spectrum of goods.
From fresh produce, and specialist ingredients to processed foods, beverages and everything in between, UK consumers benefit from the country’s diverse global supply chain.
Some of the most imported food products include:
- Fresh produce
A significant portion of the UK’s food imports is made up of fresh fruits and vegetables. This not only includes items such as bananas, avocados, soft fruits and exotic vegetables but also more everyday items such as tomatoes that can’t be grown in the UK all year round. Consumers now expect access to a full range of fresh fruits and vegetables all year round.
- Meat and dairy
Meat and dairy products form an essential component of the UK’s diet. The country produces much of its own beef, pork, poultry and lamb, as well as dairy products, but these are supplemented by imports from overseas. This helps to ensure wider choice and availability and ensures competitive pricing.
Despite being surrounded by the sea, the UK imports a significant proportion of the seafood it consumes. This includes salmon, prawns and a growing quantity of white fish from Southeast Asia.
- Grains and cereals
Grains and cereals like wheat, rice and maize have been imported into the UK in significant quantities since the 19th century. These imports are fundamental to the production of bread, pasta and other staple foods.
- Processed foods
Processed and packaged foods such as snacks, canned goods, sauces and ready meals are imported to cater to the diverse tastes and preferences of UK consumers.
Wine, tea and coffee are imported to the UK in substantial quantities. The quintessentially British drink tea is dependent on imported raw ingredients that are then processed and packaged in the UK.
- Spices and condiments
Spices and seasonings have long been a part of the UK’s culinary landscape. The UK imports a vast array of spices, herbs and condiments from around the world.
Chocolate and sweets are widely imported into the UK to satisfy the nation’s sweet tooth.
- Specialised and global Foods
With a diverse population and ties across the globe, the UK has an equally diverse palate. Specialised and global foods make up an increasing proportion of UK food imports.
How much food does the UK import?
In 2020, the UK imported 46 per cent of the food it consumed.
By value, £48 billion of food, feed, and drink (FFD) was imported and £21.4 billion was exported. The UK has in place a range of restrictions, regulations and standards that govern these imports. This ensures that UK consumers are protected and that high hygiene and animal welfare standards are maintained.
The UK imports food from a broad range of countries helping to make its food supply more resilient. No single country currently provides more than around 11 per cent of UK food imports.
More than 80 per cent of the UK’s food supply is concentrated in the UK and Europe, with the remaining 20 per ce t spread across Africa, Asia, North America, and South America.
Despite Brexit, countries in the EU continue to be the principal source of UK food imports. A total of 39 per cent of the UK’s food imports were sourced from the Netherlands, Republic of Ireland, Germany, and France in 2020.
Just over half of the nation’s food supply is produced in the UK with many UK food products being exported overseas. The UK’s food exports are dominated by high-quality products such as chocolate, which are themselves dependent on imported ingredients.
The figures paint a picture of a country that has a diverse food supply chain, that imports and exports food products globally, helping to create a wide choice of products for consumers.
What food does the UK import most of?
The UK’s biggest food imports are fruit and vegetables. The UK’s climate is characterised by mild summers and cool winters, often with high rainfall. This climate is suitable for growing certain fruits and vegetables such as apples, brassicas, potatoes and other root crops.
However, it does make it more challenging to cultivate other foods that are now integral to the UK diet.
The UK’s growing season runs typically from spring to early autumn, and during this time the UK is able to meet a substantial proportion of the country’s demand for fruit and vegetables. This capacity significantly reduces during the cooler months.
This seasonal variability in domestic production underpins the huge quantities of fresh fruit and vegetables that are imported into the UK. It ensures a consistency in supply for consumers and helps to keep prices low.
Why does the UK import so much food?
Historically, the UK has always been a significant importer of food from overseas producers. Cheaper global shipping during the 19th century and the UK’s growing empire made it easier to import products from overseas.
Grain, in particular, was cheaper to access having a dramatic impact on the diets of the poorest people in the population.
Being able to import goods from overseas reduced the reliance on a large agricultural workforce. This freed up workers to seek new opportunities in the growing towns and cities, helping them to escape periodic famine in the countryside. Cheaper imports enabled the UK to grow its industrial sector and become a leading global power.
Today, the agricultural sector in the UK has become more streamlined and productive, concentrating largely on a range of products that are ideally suited to the UK climate.
However, this means that to secure the broadest possible range of choice and year-round availability the UK depends on imported food. The UK’s climate limits the domestic production of a range of fruits and vegetables making imports necessary to ensure year-round availability of the widest range of products.
Consumers also play a part in driving imports. Consumer preferences are diverse, and they expect a wide variety of food products and these expectations can only be met by importing food from overseas.
Global food markets are cost-effective, helping to drive down costs for retailers and consumers alike. Imports will often be more affordable due to factors like climate and lower production costs in different parts of the world. Trade agreements with different countries and regions facilitate the import of specific food products. This can make it economically advantageous to import certain goods rather than attempting to produce them in the UK. The interconnectedness of global supply chains means that some products can be sourced more efficiently in other countries.
Imports ensure that the UK has food security and a diverse and stable food supply, with no country providing more than 11 per cent of the UK’s current food imports. The UK is part of a diverse international marketplace for food products that has helped to increase supply, widen choice and drive economic growth both at home and abroad.
Can the UK be self-sufficient in food?
As a largely urban society with a growing population, the UK has not been self-sufficient in food since at least the first decades of the 19th century. At the time, food shortages and even famine were not unheard of, particularly during times of adverse weather and crop failure. Even during the two World Wars of the 20th century, the UK was still reliant on FFD imports to survive, mostly from the US, Australia and Canada.
For the UK to become self-sufficient in food would be highly challenging and would require a wholesale change to our shopping and eating habits. To achieve it, or even to get near complete self-sufficiency, would likely result in a much poorer choice for consumers. The choice of fresh fruit and vegetables would be limited during the winter months. Although it’s possible to grow fruit we take for granted such as bananas under glass in the UK this is resource intensive. These kinds of products would become rarer and considerably more expensive.
More areas of the UK would need to be given over to food production, with more intensive food production being required. That may mean the loss of landscapes and natural habitats to help feed the nation. It would also require a larger agricultural and food production workforce with wages in the sector likely to rise. Overall, the cost of producing all of the food the UK would need to feed itself would increase. These costs would ultimately be passed on to the consumer.
So, while it may be possible for the UK to become self-sufficient in food production it may not be desirable. UK consumers value choice, year-round availability and affordability when it comes to food.
UK food imports made easy
The UK relies on food imports to feed itself, source ingredients for exported food products and drive economic growth. Freight forwarders play a crucial role in ensuring the safe and efficient importation of food products. They handle much of the process, from finding the most cost-effective method of international, clearing customs and onward shipping in the UK.
At SSO International Forwarding, we’re the experts in food shipping across international borders. We understand that food products require careful handling and our experienced team takes every care to ensure the safety and integrity of your consignments.
We are a trusted partner for UK food import and export businesses, working with a growing number of businesses of different sizes to help them expand into new markets.
Our new role as the inaugural customs site operator at Freeport Liverpool allows us to pass on a range of benefits to our customers.
We make it possible for you to import and export food products with ease.
Contact our experienced team to find out more about our food import services and how we work.