food Research

There is more variety in the types of food available to us than ever before, from all over the world.

This is fantastic - here at SustainabilityUK, we love food!  

However, growing and transporting this food around the world comes at a cost - which is what we hope to look at here.

It might surprise you to know that according to government statistics in 2017 50% of all the food we consume in the UK came from overseas.  Obviously we can't produce things like rice, bananas or our beloved chocolate in the UK, but in order for us to have year round access to many fruits and vegetables, we use greenhouses in southern Europe.  There has been a movement in recent years to eat seasonal foods, but generally the UK consumer wishes to have the food he or she wants when they want it.

Clearly we export a lot of food, which all results in a millions of tonnes of food being shipped around the world - some of which could be grown much more locally.

Here at SustainabilityUK our aim is to keep life's luxuries as much as possible - but see if there are ways in which we can do this whilst also maintaining the planet.

So, some interesting facts and figures about UK food for you.

1 - We waste 7 MILLION TONNES of food is thrown away by UK households every year.

2 - Within this there are about 1 BILLION (yes 1,000,000,000) slices of bread, 200 MILLION potatoes and 50 MILLION BANANAS

3 - Households make up 50% of all the UK food waste and they are far worse at recycling this than other areas - where much of the waste produced goes to make up animal feed.

4 - In economic terms the UK food industry has a turnover of in excess of £100 Billion.  If consumers demand more sustainable food, market forces will ensure this happens.

5 - 70% of the land in the UK is used for farming, with about 20% being for arable crops (wheat / barley etc) and only 1% being for fruit and vegetables.

6 - From a Mintel survey in 2016 the conclusion seemed to be the most people wanted to support British farmers, but felt that their goods were more expensive and only a third of people were prepared to spend more money in order to buy British

7 - Food miles were originally conceived about 30 years ago by Professor Tim Lang.  Put simply it is how far our food travels before  it arrives at our homes.  There are lots of complications, but one headline figure published by Walmart said that on average food travels 1500 miles to reach the consumers plate.  When you think about this, that is a huge amount.

sustainable food sources

In relation to (7) above, on thing we can do to be more sustainable is source our food more locally.

What could be more local than growing some of it in the back garden?  It takes very little space to grow some vegetables or have a fruit tree (it is more than feasible to grow a fruit tree in a pot on a balcony of a flat or grow some tomatoes on a window sill, for example)

Beyond that simply buying British, where possible and economically viable will by definition mean less than 1500 miles travelled by our food.  

Clearly more exotic foods, that can't be grown / made in the UK will still need to be transported here, like bananas and chocolate - but we can think about the food miles of our food with all purchases.

food waste

From the facts above, the biggest standout for us is the amount of food that is wasted.  The numbers are staggering.  It maybe takes a little more planning, but it is vital that all areas of society reduce these numbers.  There is much work being done by organisations large and small - from restaurants to supermarkets and hospitals to large stadia, but individuals at home can also play a significant role in this process.

eat less meat

We are regularly told that we should eat less meat to reduce the damaging effects of food production, particularly dairy.  Red meat reduction is also, generally, the more healthy option too.  However, we are not suggesting that meat should be removed for your diet, it is a great source of protein for those who eat it (there is also no problem with those who are vegetarian - who can get their proteins from other sources, although they do need to work a little harder to ensure they get enough).

The methane produced on dairy farms is undoubtedly an issue in terms of climate change, so in the long run some substitution of dairy products for similar ones (eg other milks like almond etc) or even the evolution of "clean meats" to replace livestock will reduce the effects.  


As we've just stated, getting enough protein, particularly with the range of proteins a human requires from a vegetarian or vegan diet is the challenge.  This is not to say it is impossible, but just requires some work.  We have to look at ways to supplement this if we are eating little or no meat.  With home grown crops we are going to struggle with nuts as a protein source - or many of them as they are not grown in the UK - although we can grow hazelnuts, sweet chestnuts and walnuts here.  Eggs and dairy also provide a good source of protein, but clearly the dairy industry is really the other side of the coin to the meat industry - the protein is eggs is said to be the most complete set available in a food source and therefore very useful.

Pulses and beans also have a good amount of protein, which can be very useful - as many of the fruit and vegetables we produce have very little.

Fair trade

This is a means by which large companies agree to support producers in less developed countries through such processes as fair prices, technological support, not supporting child labour and ensuring safe working practices etc.

Many products will be labelled as fair trade in developed countries, and consumers will then have a choice of whether to buy these at a slightly higher price than other products, rather than items that don't have the backing of such a scheme.  Their growing success in recent years would imply that market forces have seen consumers wanting, where they can and the extra cost isn't too much, to support such ventures.

vertical farming

This can have various meanings, but essentially is about producing food in a small, often confined area.  In some cases, this might be outdoors (planting seasonal crops within food producing trees - we visited an example of this in Barbados a while back, where coffee, pineapples, cocoa, bananas and most of all coconuts were all being grown adjacent to each other).  

Alternatively, vertical farming often refers to an indoor or more urban environment.  The former often uses hydroponics (soil-less growing), but can be in soil too.  The plants can growing up a building (eg on the outside of a skyscrapper) or indoors under artificial light (often LEDs as they use less energy).

Images kindly provided by William Warby and Chris Lim under wikimedia commons. Files licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-share alike 2.0 Generic Licence