The 2011 Food Issues Census provides a frank assessment of the activities and capacity of civil society groups working on food or farming in the UK, based on a survey of over 300 organisations.

It details a diverse sector, powered by an army of tens of thousands of volunteers working on a wide range of environmental and health initiatives that focus mainly on education and service provision.

These charities and non-profit organisations are at the forefront of government’s vision of the Big Society, showing people how to grow and cook their own food, bringing communities together, and supporting local food economies through farmers markets.

The survey was conducted by the Food Ethics Council on behalf of charitable funders The A-Team Foundation, Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, JMG Foundation, Mark Leonard Trust, Organix Foundation and the Tubney Charitable Trust.

The 2011 Food Issues Census estimates that UK civil society:

  • Consists of up to 25,000 mostly small organisations, out of 870,000 civil society organisations nationally.
  • Spends at most £700 million per year on food and farming issues, which amounts to less than 1% of total UK voluntary sector and charity income;
  • Spends one penny on food and farming-related activities for every £2 that consumers spend on food; and
  • Employs at most 20,000 full-time equivalent staff, compared to around 634,000 across UK civil society.

Almost half of the funding received by charities working on food and farming comes from the public sector, a figure that rises to around two-thirds for national and regional organisations. Against a backdrop of public sector budget cuts (including a 30% cut at Defra), this puts the financial stability of such organisations at serious risk.

A quarter of organisations depend on charitable and other third sector funders as their top source of funding. While these funders only contributed a tenth of the total income that groups spent on food or farming issues, they were the most important income stream for organisations spending less than £20,000 per year on food or farming.

Dr. Tom MacMillan, executive director of the Food Ethics Council, and the report’s author said:

“The fact that the UK’s voluntary and charitable sectors spend so little on food and farming issues is deeply worrying. It looks like a missed opportunity to make a big difference when you consider that the food system accounts for at least a fifth of UK greenhouse gas emissions, and most of the world’s water scarcity and biodiversity loss, and that poor diets cause an estimated 10% of all deaths in the UK.”

René Olivieri, Chair of the Tubney Charitable Trust said:

“We humans have a very complex relationship with food. Many of us worry about ‘eating responsibly’, and so we should. What we eat and how it is produced has enormous implications for the environment, health, energy and water use, and, of course, animal welfare.

“The Food Census is a ground-breaking attempt to survey the landscape, take stock of what charities and non-profit organisations are doing and find out what they think needs to be done. Anyone who cares about the future of food should read it.”

The Census revealed that the largest number of groups worked on local food, and animal welfare issues attracted the greatest expenditure. Overall, groups tended to focus more attention on environmental issues than health, but health issues tended to be specialised, while environmental issues were addressed alongside other themes, such as farming or education.

The information contained in the report will help the sector’s organisations – big and small – in their strategic planning and grant funding applications, and is accompanied by an online tool that enables people to explore the survey data in more detail. This can be found

Notes to editors

  1. The Food Issues Census 2011 was commissioned by charitable funders The A-Team Foundation, Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, JMG Foundation, Mark Leonard Trust, Organix Foundation and the Tubney Charitable Trust.
  2. The report is intended to be a resource for the funders who commissioned it, and for the organisations that support them, helping to identify priorities and make the case for funding, and providing a reference point for dialogue between grant-makers and grant-seekers.
  3. Of 791 organisations that were emailed, 332 took part in the survey, with 244 answering all questions. The overall response rate to the survey invitations, excluding outliers (13) and those who replied to say that their work was outside the scope of the survey (44), was 45%.
  4. The top issues for food and farming organisations were local food, education, community development, sustainability issues (including biodiversity and climate change), and adult health and nutrition. Issues that only small numbers of respondents worked on included fishing, trade policy, labour conditions and consumer protection.
  5. The Food Ethics Council is an independent advisory body and research organisation that believes we can have a food system that is healthy and fair for people and the environment. We work with businesses, government and civil society to help find a way through the difficult issues surrounding food and farming.
  6. The figures in this press notice pertaining to the UK charitable sector as a whole can be found at the NCVO’s UK Civil Society almanac 2009: