About 25% of Britain's land is arable, and almost half is suitable for meadows and pastures. Its agriculture is highly mechanized and extremely productive; about 2% of the labor force produces 60% percent of the country's food needs. Barley, wheat, rapeseed, potatoes, sugar beets, fruits, and vegetables are the main crops. The widespread dairy industry produces milk, eggs, and cheese. Beef cattle and large numbers of sheep, as well as poultry and pigs, are raised throughout much of the country. There is also a sizable fishing industry, with cod, haddock, mackerel, whiting, trout, salmon, and shellfish making up the bulk of the catch.
Great Britain is one of the world's leading industrialized nations. It has achieved this position despite the lack of most raw materials needed for industry. It must also import 40% of its food suplies. Thus, its prosperity has been dependent upon the export of manufactured goods in exchange for raw materials and foodstuffs. Within the manufacturing sector, the largest industries include machine tools; electric power, automation, and railroad equipment; ships; aircraft; motor vehicles and parts; electronic and communications equipment; metals; chemicals; coal; petroleum; paper and printing; food processing; textiles; and clothing.
During the 1970s and 80s, nearly 3.5 million manufacturing jobs were lost, but in the 1990s over 3.5 million jobs were created in service-related industries. By the early 21st cent., banking, insurance, business services, and other service industries accounted for almost three fourths of the gross domestic product and employed 80% of the workforce. This trend was also reflected in a shift in Great Britain's economic base, which has benefited the southeast, southwest, and Midlands regions of the country, while the north of England and Northern Ireland have been hard hit by the changing economy.
The main industrial and commercial areas are the great conurbations, where about one third of the country's population lives. The administrative and financial center and most important port is Greater London, which also has various manufacturing industries. London is Europe's foremost financial city. Metal goods, vehicles, aircraft, synthetic fibers, and electronic equipment are made in the West Midlands conurbation, which with the addition of Coventry roughly corresponds to the former metropolitan county of West Midlands. The industrial Black Country and the city of Birmingham are in the West Midlands. Greater Manchester has cotton and synthetic textiles, coal, and chemical industries and is a transportation and warehousing center. Liverpool, Britain's second port, along with Southport and Saint Helens are part of the Merseyside conurbation. Leeds, Bradford, and the neighboring metropolitan districts are Britain's main center of woolen, worsted, and other textile production. The Tyneside-Wearside region, with Newcastle upon Tyne as its center and Sunderland as a main city, has coal mines and steel, electrical engineering, chemical, and shipbuilding and repair industries.
The South Wales conurbation, with the ports of Swansea, Cardiff, and Newport, was historically a center of coal mining and steel manufacturing; coal mining has declined sharply, however, in many parts of the region. Current important industries also include oil refining, metals production (lead, zinc, nickel, aluminum), synthetic fibers, and electronics. In Scotland, the region around the River Clyde, including Glasgow, is noted for shipbuilding, marine engineering, and printing as well as textile, food, and chemicals production. The Belfast area in Northern Ireland is a shipbuilding, textile, and food products center.
Great Britain has abundant supplies of coal, oil, and natural gas. Production of oil from offshore wells in the North Sea began in 1975, and the country is self-sufficient in petroleum. Other mineral resources include iron ore, tin, limestone, salt, china clay, oil shale, gypsum, and lead.
The country's chief exports are manufactured goods, fuels, chemicals, food and beverages, and tobacco. The chief imports are manufactured goods, machinery, fuels, and foodstuffs. Since the early 1970s, Great Britain's trade focus has shifted from the United States to the European Union, which now accounts for over 50% of its trade. The United States, Germany, France, and the Netherlands are the main trading partners, and the Commonwealth countries are also important.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.