British agriculture is highly mechanized and productive. It is among the most efficient in Europe. With only 2 percent of the workforce, British agriculture and fishing provides 60 percent of the kingdom's food needs. In 1999, there were 500,000 tractors in use in the United Kingdom, 157,000 milking machines, and 47,000 harvesters. Large-scale agriculture is concentrated in the fertile soils of the southeast region of England. Diseases such as hoof and mouth disease and mad cow disease have led to declines in the livestock sector. In 1999, production in the sector declined by 3.78 percent. Concerns over the potential spread of these diseases have led to broad bans on the importation of British beef and veal by a variety of nations, including the EU countries and the United States.
In 1998, the total value of British agricultural exports was US$17.89 billion. Agricultural imports totaled US$30.76 billion. Approximately 18.5 million hectares are devoted to agriculture in the United Kingdom. Of this total, about 5 million hectares are used for crops and the rest for grazing livestock. In 1998, there were about 615,000 Britons engaged in agriculture for a living, of which approximately 80,000 were seasonal workers.
The primary crops include cereals, oilseeds, potatoes, and vegetables. Primary crop production in 1999 was 38.81 million metric tons. In 1996, production grew by some 15.43 percent, but there were declines of 1.14 percent in 1997 and 6.18 percent in 1998. These declines were stopped by a rise in production of 0.74 percent in 1999. Wheat is the largest individual crop. In 1999 total production of wheat amounted to 14.87 million metric tons. This marked a decline from previous years, including a recent high point of 16.1 million metric tons in 1996. Declines in wheat production have been driven by lower demand. The second largest crop is sugar beets. Production in 1999 was 10.33 million metric tons. That same year, potato production was 7.1 million metric tons and barley production was 6.5 million metric tons.
The primary livestock products include beef, veal, chicken, duck, goose, lamb, swine, and turkey. During the 1990s British beef and sheep farmers suffered from the outbreak of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), commonly known as "mad cow" disease. The disease affects the nervous system of cattle and a similar disease, known as scrapie, affects sheep. Both are incurable. Ultimately, about 160,000 head of cattle were found to have BSE. No sooner had BSE been brought under control than a viral infection known as hoof and mouth or foot and mouth disease reached epidemic proportions. The disease is one of the most contagious in the world. By 2000, 408,000 cattle and sheep had been destroyed because of the disease and as many as 500,000 more faced future destruction. In an effort to prevent the spread of hoof and mouth disease, the government has ordered the inoculation of 200,000 cattle and the vaccination of an equal number of sheep. Concerns over the spread of foot and mouth disease have led most countries, including the EU nations and the United States, to ban imports of British livestock products.
In 1999, total livestock production was 3.59 million metric tons. Restrictions on the import of British beef and veal and the culling of herds in order to contain the spread of hoof and mouth disease have caused beef production to decline by one-third since 1995. Total beef production in 1999 was 678,000 metric tons. Lamb production has also declined since 1995 (by 20 percent) and production in 1999 was 361,000 metric tons. While there have been declines in these sectors, output of other livestock products has increased. Chicken production increased from 1.07 million metric tons in 1995 to 1.19 million tons in 1999, while swine output increased slightly from 1.01 million metric tons in 1995 to 1.04 million metric tons in 1999. The production of duck meat increased from 30,000 metric tons in 1995 to 41,000 metric tons in 1999. In 1998, there were 11.52 million head of cattle, 8.1 million pigs, 44.5 million sheep, and 61.4 million chickens and other fowl.
Fishing production in the United Kingdom increased from approximately 936,000 metric tons in 1993 to more than 1.1 million metric tons in 1999. In 1999, the total value of fish exports was US$1.3 billion. The main fish catches are cod, haddock, whiting, mackerel, herring, and shellfish. In 1998 haddock was the largest catch at 82,800 tons, followed by cod at 72,700 tons, and mackerel at 54,400 tons. Total shellfish catches exceeded 124,000 tons. The British fishing fleet numbered 7,639 ships in 1998, down from 11,189 in 1990. That same year there were about 18,000 people employed in the fishing sector. Exports of fish and shellfish amounted to £743.7 million.
For most of the 1900s, there was little significant production of forest products in the United Kingdom. Most of the land had either already been cleared or was owned by private or state entities. However, during the 1990s, production of forest products began to increase as the various species of trees on timber farms began to reach maturity. Production of forest products, mainly timber, increased from 7,093 metric tons to 10,094 metric tons in 1999.