Global cropland and greenhouse gas impacts of UK food supply are increasingly located overseas

Henri de Ruiter, Jennie I. Macdiarmid, Robin B. Matthews, Thomas Kastner, Pete Smith

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Producing sufficient, healthy food for a growing world population amid a changing climate is a major challenge for the twenty-first century. Agricultural trade could help alleviate this challenge by using comparative productivity advantages between countries. However, agricultural trade has implications for national food security and could displace environmental impacts from developed to developing countries. This study illustrates the global effects resulting from the agricultural trade of a single country, by analysing the global cropland and greenhouse gas impacts of the UK's food and feed supply. The global cropland footprint associated with the UK food and feed supply increased by 2022 kha (+23%) from 1986 to 2009. Greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE) associated with fertilizer and manure application, and rice cultivation remained relatively constant at 7.9 Mt CO2e between 1987 and 2008. Including GHGE from land-use change, however, leads to an increase from 19.1 in 1987 to 21.9 Mt CO2e in 2008. The UK is currently importing over 50% of its food and feed, whereas 70% and 64% of the associated cropland and GHGE impacts, respectively, are located abroad. These results imply that the UK is increasingly reliant on external resources and that the environmental impact of its food supply is increasingly displaced overseas.

Original languageEnglish
Article number20151001
Pages (from-to)1-10
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of the Royal Society Interface
Issue number114
Publication statusPublished - 31 Jan 2016

Bibliographical note


This work was supported by a University of Aberdeen Environment and Food Security Theme/the James Hutton Institute PhD studentship, and contributes to the Scottish Food Security Alliance-Crops and the Belmont Forum supported DEVIL project (NERC fund UK contribution: NE/M021327/1). J.M. and R.B.M. acknowledge funding from the Rural and Environment Science and Analytical Services, Scottish Government. T.K. acknowledges funding from the European Research Council Grant ERC-263522 (LUISE).


  • global environmental impacts
  • food supply
  • land use
  • international trade
  • self-sufficiency


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