Scotland’s food and drink sector is in great shape. In the past decade its reputation for providing fine products for the table has thrived, with industry turnover up 44 per cent since 2007 to more than £14 billion.
It is a marketplace where global giants, iconic names and micro-businesses can all take advantage of our powerful Scottish brand.
“What we now have is a national identity of food and drink in Scotland,” says James Withers, chief executive of Scotland Food & Drink.
“Every country I have been to believes they have the best food and drink in the world and they are all hugely ambitious.
“I think we have the best story to tell. We have our quality products like Scotch beef, soft fruit, our salmon, and Scotch whisky, but it is the broader story that sits around it that is important,” he adds.
And Scotland’s food and drink industry aims to continue the recent growth by doubling turnover to £30bn by 2030.
In March, a vision for the Scottish food and drink brand was published in a strategy document called Ambition 2030 by the Scotland Food & Drink Partnership, an industry-led partnership of the main organisations in the farming, fishing, food and drink sector, alongside the Scottish Government and its key agencies.
Ambition 2030 identifies three pillars on which the industry can build further growth: skills and people, supply chain and innovation.
“In a world where people are increasingly interested in the quality and provenance of their food and drink, Scotland has as good an opportunity as any country in the world to achieve a leading food and drink sector and to grow,” says Withers.
“Ambition 2030 makes no secret about being hugely ambitious. We are looking at how we really make a mark over the next ten to 15 years and make food and drink a star player in Scotland’s economy.”
There is a heavy emphasis in Ambition 2030 on innovation and finding creative new ways to grow markets.
That innovation can take many forms and is prompted by a range of factors – from waste reduction or skills shortages to health concerns or ways to attract tourists.
Throughout history there are numerous examples of blockbuster products which have grown out of a chance discovery or, as Plato might have said, necessity.
Think how both pasteurisation and refrigeration (invented in 1748 by William Cullen of Glasgow University) transformed how long food could be preserved and ultimately inspired many new products.
The microwave had a similar impact on product development in the second half of the 20th century and today there are few ready-made meals which can’t be marketed for microwave cooks.
The solution to floating pieces of leaves in a cup of tea – the tea bag – came from the customers of New York tea merchant Thomas Sullivan who used his tea-filled silk sample bags to make their brew.
As these inventions show, innovation is rarely done in isolation – the need for someone to work out how to apply the idea, or make money from it, or interest other people in it will make the difference in transforming dreams into reality.
In Scotland, there is already a healthy link between academia and food and drink producers and manufacturers.
Abertay’s Food Innovation Centre in Dundee, Queen Margaret University’s Centre for Food Development & Innovation near Edinburgh, the James Hutton Institute in Aberdeen and Dundee and the Rowett Institute at Aberdeen University are all heavily involved in this collaboration.
Founded 14 years ago, Abertay’s Food Innovation Centre opened a £3.5 million food laboratory in May which will expand the support it has been offering to the likes of gin distillers, farmers and fish producers. “The future is collaborative in nature,” says Dr Jonathan Wilkin, a food technologist and lecturer at Abertay.
“The government is really pushing common interest groups where they sit producers and manufacturers in a room together who perhaps have similar products and they make sure they collaborate with each other.
“Rather than one person benefiting from academic expertise, a group of people benefits from it and it increases the Scottish food and drink industry.
“We are always trying to understand where the next food trend is going to come from.
“I really think the way forward is for consumer-led product development,” says Wilkin.
“The one thing that we don’t do enough of in Scotland is understand what makes the consumer tick.
“You can have the best marketing in the world but if it isn’t what the consumer needs at the right price then they aren’t going to buy it.”
Another area for innovation is around healthy eating, as Withers points out: “If we take diet and nutrition as an example, we have one of the most naturally healthy larders on Earth but a population that, by most measurements, has been getting more unhealthy as the years have gone on.”
Companies now are looking at reformulating recipes to include less fat or less sugar and “free-from” food and drink has been a growth area for Scotland.
Genius gluten-free bread, which is produced in Edinburgh, hit supermarket shelves in 2009 and has since added other baked goods to its range.
The capital is also home to one of the UK’s first dedicated gluten-free microbreweries. Bellfield Brewery was set up in 2016 by two coeliacs who believed there should be more options for those with certain dietary requirements.
In Dunbar, there’s NoCowKnowHow which makes cakes and bakes without preservatives, dairy, lactose, eggs and nuts, while Lazy Days Foods in Harthill, North Lanarkshire, is run by two food scientists specialising in treats for consumers with a range of food allergies.
That’s the health “necessity” mothering the invention.
Another prompt might be the manufacturing process. It may be a more efficient use of machinery or techniques or finding a use for by-products. Whisky distilleries have long been supplying the waste draff to farmers as protein-rich cattle feed.
More recently pot ale has found a use as feed for salmon in fish farms, while pot ale and draff has been powering cars for Celtic Renewables.
The spin-out company from Edinburgh Napier University worked with Tullibardine Distillery in Perthshire to create biobutanol which can replace petrol and diesel in cars, with no engine modifications required.
At Abertay, the academics helped one of the new generation of farm distillers find a use for the faba beans grown to improve the land’s nitrogen levels.
Arbikie Highland Estate Distillery at Inverkeilor in Angus had been looking at methods of using carbohydrates from the beans in the distillation process and to produce beer, and then passing the leftover protein to fish farms for use in salmon feeds.
It was research at Heriot-Watt’s International Centre for Brewing and Distilling which laid the foundations for Edinburgh Gin’s head distiller David Wilkinson to create Christmas Gin in 2014.
A fellow student had mentioned frankincense and myrrh as potential botanicals and Wilkinson went on to experiment with them at the distillery and found the dry perfumey frankincense and sweet myrrh worked well together.
Creating a marketable – and tasty – product does not have to be about ploughing a lonely furrow.
“Food and drink manufacturers in Scotland have a world of expertise on their doorstep,” says Howell Davies, sector engagement project manager at Interface, which connects organisations from a range of industries to Scotland’s 23 higher education and research institutes.
“We do all talk to each other. We are very lucky in Scotland that we are small enough to all know each other but we are big enough to compete on a world stage.”
Additional reporting: Anna Dove