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United Kingdom’s fruit and vegetable supply is increasingly dependent on imports from climate-vulnerable producing countries

Abstract

The contribution of domestic production to total fruit and vegetable supply in the UK decreased from 42% in 1987 to 22% in 2013. The impact of this changing pattern of UK fruit and vegetable imports from countries with different vulnerabilities to projected climate change on the resilience of the UK food system is currently unknown. Here, we used the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) bilateral trade database over a period of 27 years to estimate changes in fruit and vegetable supply in the UK and the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Initiative (ND-GAIN) climate vulnerability categories to assess the climate vulnerability of countries supplying fruit and vegetables to the UK. The diversity of fruit and vegetable supply has increased. In 1987, 21 crops constituted the top 80% of all fruit and vegetables supplied to the UK; in 2013, it was 34 crops. The contribution of tropical fruits has rapidly increased while that of more traditional vegetables, such as cabbages and carrots, has declined. The proportion of fruit and vegetables supplied to the UK market from climate-vulnerable countries increased from 20% in 1987 to 32% in 2013. Sensitivity analyses using climatic and freshwater availability indicators supported these findings. Increased reliance on fruit and vegetable imports from climate-vulnerable countries could negatively affect the availability, price and consumption of fruit and vegetables in the UK, affecting dietary intake and health, particularly of older people and low-income households. Inter-sectoral actions across agriculture, health, environment and trade are critical in both the UK and countries that export to the UK to increase the resilience of the food system and support population health.

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Fig. 1: Change in supply of fruit and vegetables in the UK 1987–2013.
Fig. 2: Share of supply and ND-GAIN country score category for countries producing at least 1% of UK fruit and vegetable supply in 1987 and 2013.
Fig. 3: ND-GAIN vulnerability index of country of origin and 2013 share of major fruit and vegetable families consumed in the UK.
Fig. 4: Environmental characteristics of production areas.
Fig. 5: Consumption of berries and citrus fruits as a proportion of total fruit and vegetable consumption by age group.

Data availability

Data generated in this study will be made available upon reasonable request through LSHTM Data Compass (https://datacompass.lshtm.ac.uk/).

Code availability

Code and algorithms generated in this study will be made available upon reasonable request from the corresponding author.

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Acknowledgements

This study was funded by The Wellcome Trust (grants 205200/Z/16/Z and 210794/Z/18/Z).

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P.F.D.S., R.G., A.T., A.H. and A.D.D. contributed to the conceptualization of the study. P.F.D.S., C.M., T.K. and C.A.-C. contributed to the data curation. P.F.D.S., C.M. and C.A.-C. conducted the formal analysis. A.D.D. and P.F.D.S. contributed to the funding acquisition. P.F.D.S. conducted the investigation. P.F.D.S., C.M., T.K., R.G., A.H. and A.D.D. designed the methodology. P.F.D.S. developed the visualization of results. P.F.D.S. wrote the original manuscript. C.M., T.K., C.A.-C., R.G., S.J., A.T., A.H. and A.D.D. commented on or edited the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Pauline F. D. Scheelbeek.

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Scheelbeek, P.F.D., Moss, C., Kastner, T. et al. United Kingdom’s fruit and vegetable supply is increasingly dependent on imports from climate-vulnerable producing countries. Nat Food 1, 705–712 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43016-020-00179-4

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