Unlocking innovation across farming, fishing, and production is vital to enable Scottish food and drink businesses to respond to today’s ever-changing consumer and market needs. There are challenges and there are opportunities but with world-leading universities, colleges, public agencies and forward-thinking specialists on tap, there is little Scotland’s food and drink sector can’t explore or overcome.
“Food and drink is such an important part of the innovation landscape,” 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.
“People are having to be smarter about what they do with their business. There is more and more competition with prices in the supermarkets and so on, and what we find is that the producers are having to focus on their costs.”
Waste reduction is emerging as something of a theme in terms of the projects Davies has been working on.
“Businesses need to think about process efficiency but also about their waste,” he explains.
“We have done a lot of projects now looking at what is coming out of food and drink businesses in terms of waste and how they can add value that could be put back into the system.
“It’s good from a sustainability angle but also for the business’s profit margin.”
It is a trend that Dr Jonathan Wilkin and his colleagues have noticed, in their research at the Food Innovation Centre at Abertay University in Dundee.
“The fish industry has really started doing quite a lot and they are being quite innovative with their waste reduction, reusing waste where appropriate either back into the food chain or into a different mechanism,” says Wilkin, a lecturer and business development manager for food innovation at the university.
“That is an encouraging thing because everyone is trying to drive down costs.”
He highlights the university’s work with Ivan Wood & Sons, a Fife-based fruit and vegetable wholesaler which also washes large quantities of potatoes to make chips for restaurants.
“They decided they wanted to develop a way of removing starch from the [potato] water,” explains Wilkin.
“We helped them validate their system. They have patented the device and are not just supplying it to the potato washing and chopping industry, but they have made it small enough so that people in fish and chip shops or who wash rice can actually have it in their restaurants.
“They have taken it from the food industry and put it into the food service industry.”
This kind of diversification is not uncommon in the food and drink sector. The obvious example is new whisky distilleries branching out into gin production while they wait for their casks to mature.
“We are also working with a salmon producer harvesting seaweed in the north of Scotland,” continues Wilkin.
“Seaweed is a big thing at the moment and this company is looking at ways of marketing seaweed to the general population in Scotland and the rest of the UK.”
And Mackie’s of Scotland – known first and foremost for its crisps and ice cream – is trialling a new chocolate recipe with help from Abertay.
“We are trying to match consumer expectation,” says Wilkin. “You have to really understand the science behind how chocolate is made before you can start making something that consumers want.”
Between 2007 and 2014, Scotland saw a 72 per cent increase in research and development spend in food and drink, and to some extent it is now a case of maintaining that momentum.
“The consumer is becoming more savvy,” says Davies. “They know what they want and we are working with companies so that they can push their offering out to the customer.
“In Scotland there is a focus on the landscape, the story, the quality and the provenance and we want to maintain that brand across the world.
“That might mean helping companies to ensure there is integrity in their supply chains or helping them to improve the quality of their food.”
Arbroath-based Angus Soft Fruits is another prime example of a business that is looking at improving its processes.
With a lot of wastage to contend with, the producer has been working with Interface to find ways to reduce it, either through distillation into a spirit or by using it to make chemicals.
The James Hutton Institute which has premises in Aberdeen and Dundee is celebrating its innovative soft fruit research, too, with its progress providing the focus for a talk at the Global Berry Congress, held in Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, in March.
Its cutting-edge research is centred around variety development and the investigation into the nutritional aspects of berries.
Meanwhile, the Rowett Institute at Aberdeen University has announced its scientists would be conducting a study into the association between consumption of crab meat and health.
Founded 14 years ago, Abertay’s Food Innovation Centre has been fuelling growth and driving ideas since before food and drink became the talking point it is today.
With the heightened interest in the sector, the university’s research is even more important and it opened a pioneering £3.5 million food laboratory in May.
“The future is collaborative in nature,” says Wilkin. “The government is really pushing common interest groups where they sit in a room together producers and manufacturers 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.”
Certainly staff and students at Abertay have been hands on in terms of supporting Scotland’s gin producers, namely Arbikie Highland Estate Distillery at Inverkeilor near Arbroath.
The farm-based distillery grows faba beans to improve nitrogen levels but has no use for them.
So it has been looking at methods of using carbohydrates from the beans in the distillation process and to produce beer, and then passing the protein from the faba beans to fish farms, where it is used in salmon feeds.
A lot goes on behind the scenes to stock the shelves with interesting products packed with fresh flavours but ultimately the driver is consumer demand; to a large extent we are the ones steering the future of food and drink in Scotland.
“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.”
It comes back full circle to that concept of collaboration; collaborating with consumers, with experts and with the competition.
“Food and drink manufacturers in Scotland have a world of expertise on their doorstep,” says Davies.
“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.”