A national approach for transformation of the UK food system

Transformation of the food system at the national scale requires concerted action from government, business and civil society, based on sound evidence from the research community. A programme for transformation of the United Kingdom’s food system, for healthy people and a healthy environment, is described here.

Healthy people and a healthy environment are intrinsically linked through food, and it is only by taking a systems approach to food that the transformations needed to achieve human and planetary health can be delivered. A food systems approach encapsulates the actors, activities and outcomes involved in agriculture, aquaculture, processing, manufacture, retail, consumption and waste, alongside the interdependencies, pressures and drivers (Fig. 1)1.

Fig. 1: The food system.

Centre for Food Policy, City, University of London

The food supply chain at the core of the food system, has interdependencies with politics, health, environment, society and economy.

The food system is highly interconnected and complex. A food systems approach avoids consequences from interventions in one part of the system adversely affecting another, and provides a framework for multi-pronged and simultaneous action to drive change. This approach is particularly important in the context of coordination failure — which currently occurs across the food system — where government departments, academia and industry work in relative silos on cross-cutting issues.

There is a need for stronger coordination and integration to transform the food system both within and across these sectors: across government, by bringing together departments with responsibility for different parts of the food system to develop coherent policies2; across academia, by bringing together different disciplines to conduct systems-based research; and across industry, by bringing together businesses working on healthy consumption and sustainable production.

While global perspectives on how to achieve healthy diets within planetary boundaries3,4 are useful, granularity at the national scale is required to drive policy and national research agendas.

A coordinated national approach

A newly launched, eight-year, £47.5 million strategic research programme, led by the Global Food Security programme (www.foodsecurity.ac.uk) and funded by UK Research and Innovation in partnership with government departments, is focusing on transformational change of the UK’s food system for healthy people and a healthy environment5. It brings together academia, government, business and civil society organizations within interdisciplinary consortia to provide evidence for multi-pronged and simultaneous action across the food system. Key priorities for the programme are outlined in Box 1.

Food system challenges for the UK

Unhealthy dietary patterns are a product of the current food system, with poor diets contributing to 1 in 7 deaths in Great Britain every year6. In England, 62% of women and 67% of men were classified as overweight or obese in 20197, with diet-related chronic disease accounting for £6.1 billion of annual National Health Service spending (around 9%) and generating a wider economic loss of more than £54 billion per year (3% of UK GDP)8. UK diets lack oily fish and fibre from wholegrains, fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds, and meat consumption exceeds national guidelines for health9. Foods high in fat, sugar and salt make up just over half of all meals consumed in the average UK household10;more grains, sugars and fats are produced globally than are needed for healthy diets- but not enough fruit and vegetables11. The UK food system is intrinsically linked to the global food system, given that the UK imports around half of all its food12.

A variety of socio-economic, cultural and biological factors influence diet, the intake of energy-dense foods, and the relationship between calorie intake and expenditure13. Wider issues, such as poverty and access to social protection mechanisms, can also be contributing factors to health inequalities and a disproportionately greater incidence of overweight and obesity14. A shift towards healthy diets is clearly complex and will require a major change in the behaviour of actors across the food system, from production and supply to consumption and food environments.

In parallel to these health challenges, the food production systems that supply current diets are not sustainable in terms of water use, biodiversity loss and greenhouse gas emissions15. Around 85% of the UK’s total land footprint is associated with meat and dairy production (both domestic and imported), yet meat and dairy only contribute 48% of total protein and 32% of total calories consumed16. The overall impacts of livestock production depend on the animals being reared and the system being used, and there are trade-offs across productivity, animal welfare, water use, biodiversity and carbon sequestration17. However, animal products with the lowest environmental impacts still typically exceed those of vegetable substitutes, providing an imperative for dietary change18.

Greenhouse gas emissions from UK agriculture, accounting for 75% of nitrous oxide and 50% of methane emissions nationally19, cost the UK an estimated £3.1 billion in 201520. The annual external cost to the UK of soil erosion and compaction from agriculture was estimated to be £305 million in 201021. The current food market does not factor in the costs to healthcare systems and the environment, and these have increased over time to critical levels. Evidence shows that for every £1 UK consumers spend on food, additional costs of around £1 are incurred to society22.

These challenges are compounded by climate change, which is already impacting food systems through extreme weather events, regional climatic changes, changing patterns of pests and diseases, and changing sea temperatures, as well as potential impacts on trade. Climatic changes will not only be felt on land; marine ecosystems and food supply is set to change. Cod stocks in the Celtic and Irish Seas are expected to disappear under predicted temperature changes by the year 2100, while those in the southern North Sea and Georges Bank will decline. Cod will likely spread northwards along the coasts of Greenland and Labrador, occupy larger areas of the Barents Sea, and may even extend onto some of the continental shelves of the Arctic Ocean23.

Food system policy in the UK

A key research objective of the UK’s new food systems programme is to determine where food would come from if the UK switched to healthy and sustainable diets, including domestically and in the context of future trading relationships. The UK currently imports 47% of all its food — 90% of which is supplied by 24 countries (based on the value of food purchased), with around a third coming from the European Union12.

In terms of imports, there are opportunities for this research programme to inform trade policy, and best-practice in terms of sustainable and ethical sourcing both domestically and overseas. On the domestic front, the post-Brexit Agriculture Bill brings the opportunity to align farming subsidies, and hence domestic production, with food that is needed for a healthy and sustainable diet. The UK population typically consumes home grown eggs, meat and dairy products (over 80% comes from the UK) and home-grown cereals (62%) — but only 23% of fruit and vegetables consumed actually comes from the UK24. A key point for resolution — considering health, sustainability, economic and social factors — is what food should be grown in the UK and what should be imported? A major part of this question is understanding how food policy might need to evolve to support this transformation, for example through subsidies and trade.

It is recognized that there are challenges to national policymaking in the context of food security. It involves multiple stakeholders with multiple objectives; disparate and fragmented governance structures; the lack of a specific place to connect food policy; and a lack of transparency making it difficult for stakeholders to engage. A better integrated approach to food policy, bringing together different parts of government or facilitating cross-private-sector engagement could resolve these issues, but this would require a new approach to governance25.

There are multiple UK government priorities across the food system that would benefit from such an integrated approach, including the Childhood Obesity Plan, Eatwell Guide, 25-year Environment Plan, Agriculture Bill, UK Exiting the EU, Clean Growth Strategy, Agri-tech Strategy, and the Food Standard Agency’s Food We Can Trust Strategy. Many of these priorities are cross-departmental, and evidence from this programme will enable coherent policymaking for food system transformation across health, food production and the environment2.

In the UK, on behalf of the government, a National Food Strategy, led by Henry Dimbleby, is taking a food systems approach and will use the latest interdisciplinary research from the programme described here to help deliver its objectives. Given the urgency of the challenges, nothing short of transforming the UK food system for healthy people and a healthy environment will suffice. Such national-scale transformation in the UK, through research and policy, provides a framework and exemplar for what might be achieved in other nations, each contributing to the global challenge of food system transformation for food security.


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R.B. co-wrote this paper in his role as director of the Global Food Security programme; it does not necessarily reflect the views of the programme partners. G.P. co-wrote this paper in his role as an academic at the University of Southampton, and director of the UK Food system for healthy people and healthy environment programme. He is also the chief scientific adviser for a non-ministerial UK Government Department (Food Standards Agency), although the paper relates to his academic role and not his advisory role.

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Correspondence to Guy M. Poppy.

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Bhunnoo, R., Poppy, G.M. A national approach for transformation of the UK food system. Nat Food 1, 6–8 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43016-019-0019-8

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