Robert Graham: Investment in light bulb moments is the best way to tackle our dairy crisis

Robert Graham at Airthrey Kerse Farm. Photograph: Jane Barlow
Robert Graham at Airthrey Kerse Farm. Photograph: Jane Barlow
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Scots are renowned for their innovation. From the telephone and bicycle, to raincoats and toasters – we’re often ahead of the curve. But to keep those light bulb moments coming, we must invest more in research and development and nurture the talent and ideas that will help us compete globally.

The First Minister recently talked passionately about how ambition, partnership and innovation are central to delivering sustainable jobs in our food and drink sector and others. New product development and continued innovation is the lifeblood of Scottish industry.

In terms of economic growth, it’s known that Scotland has often trailed behind the levels experienced across the UK, and a Scottish Government cash injection to boost R&D is welcome. It is critical that, as a country, we have the facilities and the ability to properly research, develop and launch new products to keep us ahead of the game.

Yet with still so much unclear and uncertain in terms of Brexit, be it within the UK or the EU, seismic shifts are taking place – a rather unsettling prospect. We have a brief but very important window to create opportunity out of this situation. Opportunity that would see Scotland benefit in many transformational ways: through increased job drivers, innovation, stronger international trading relationships and economic resilience.

Naturally, at Graham’s the Family Dairy we fully support the government’s drive for investing in the future of innovation, R&D and career pathways. As a family business, it’s in our nature to think long-term. We’ve grown through three generations of dairy farmers and have launched a new product every year since our rebrand in 2006. We strive to be as innovative as possible to ensure forward thinking and capturing the imagination of consumers. We can only continue to achieve this by constantly researching, listening, analysing, developing and innovating.

Scotland Food & Drink Partnership’s industry-led strategy, Ambition 2030, has innovation high on its agenda. It’s ambitious target to double turnover in farming, fishing, food and drink to £30 billion by 2030 needs investment, collaboration, political will, and job creation.

We’re ready to invest. Graham’s is in a position to help drive this forward with a proposed national dairy production, research and education facility in Stirling, which represents the largest single investment in the sector in over 30 years. Should the proposal be approved by Scottish ministers, we will deliver much needed affordable housing and facilities for the local area, which will enable the investment in the production centre and facilitate an acceleration of new product innovation.

The national dairy centre will focus heavily on R&D – it will be home to scientists, researchers and food technicians and will help put us, and Scotland, at the forefront of change. We’ll be researching five to 10 years in the future, being in the vanguard of food innovation. We will no longer be following the trends, but making them.

However, this must be set against the backdrop of the current global dairy crisis. The value of butter has trebled in the past 15 months, with no signs of stopping. Farmers, dairy processors and grocers have all felt it – and now consumers are noticing that availability is very thinly spread, and costly to boot.

A number of factors have led to this position, largely a fall in UK production and an increase in imports. The UK is the third largest importer of dairy by value in the world, with 93 per cent of all spreadable butter sold in Scotland not produced here; for yoghurt, the figure is around 90 per cent.

Currently, Scotland is not self-sufficient when it comes to the production of dairy and fats in our own right. Our national dairy centre has the potential to significantly increase Scotland’s domestic production capacity, allowing us to develop and sell more home-grown products – here and overseas.

If successful, we will operate in markets we’ve never had a presence in before. Consumers will be seeking out Scottish food and drink across the world, wherever they are. With more forward thinking and investment, Scotland’s food and drink sector can be less reliant on imports, more self-sustaining and truly leading trends on food, drink, nutrition, health and well-being.

Robert Graham is MD of Graham’s the Family Dairy