Teaching primary school children about diet and nutrition is the best way for the food and drink sector to make a long-term impact in Scotland with limited resources – but we need to accept it will take time for improvements to come through.
That was the view of James Withers, chief executive of Scotland Food & Drink, who said the change in primary school education about food and drink had been “transformational”.
Withers told The Scotsman Conferences’ fifth annual food and drink conference: “My gut feeling is that as we do not have huge resources, we go really hard at the primary schools – but understand that we will not make a major difference for a long time.”
Shirley Spear, chair of the Scottish Food Commission, said the headteacher of one North Lanarkshire secondary school had seen a huge increase in pupils wanting to study home economics – and needed more space.
“That school, and many others, are doing great things – but others are closing down their home economics department and we have a real crisis with a shortage of home economic teachers,” said Spear.
“Children have to learn how to cook and learn about nutrition at an early age.”
Spear, who founded the Three Chimneys on Skye more than 30 years ago, also warned old prejudices about food and drink, as a “down at heel job for dunces” still existed in places and had to be tackled.
Stephen Leckie, chief executive of Crieff Hydro and chairman of the Scottish Tourism Alliance, said creating enthusiasm among young employees was crucial. “We have to show them it’s a fun profession where they can get on,” he said.
At Crieff Hydro, Leckie said the 600-plus staff were continually asked if they were “on the bus” and bought into the philosophy of enjoying their work and in turn, giving customers a great experience.
This was borne out in the 70 per cent of return visitors to Crieff Hydro, he added.
“Attitude is everything,” said Leckie. “We need to light the spark with skills, build an exciting picture and make people feel good about this industry.”
Spear recognised the Scottish Food Commission had an enormous task ahead, but said it was everyone’s responsibility to play their part in building a “Good Food Nation”.
“There is some fantastic work going on and we must all work to change things for the better in Scotland. Everyone recognises the scale of the challenges ahead,” she said.
“Food affects every person, every day. Good food is critical and must sit at the top of our agenda. This is not a new issue but we have failed to make inroads into the health statistics which continue to alarm us.”
Spear argued the role of the commission was not to pontificate on specific issues like a sugar tax or junk food advertising, but to be a hub to bring all parties together.
She challenged everyone in the sector to get involved: “The commission can lead a joined-up conversation.
“I want everyone to feel they are playing a part in a movement for change. Building that good food nation has got to become the biggest public campaign we have ever known.
“There is no silver bullet, no quick fix, this is societal change. No-one is exempt from making their own contribution; everyone will benefit.”
Spear said closer working across Scottish Government departments and local authorities, and between the public and private sector at all levels, was vital: “This is far too important for stepping on toes, for petty rivalries.”
She praised new Cabinet Secretary Fergus Ewing for his “resolve to uphold the role of food and drink in his portfolio” and said: “Scotland is in a good place to move ahead. The big food conversation is growing. Little by little, we are bringing about changes in diet and lifestyle. But change will not come about through enforcement; it will come about because we, the people, want it to happen.”
Withers felt collaboration was the critical factor in effecting change and further growth in the food and drink sector: “Collaboration is our real game-changer. Different sectors work together and create a real community feel across Scotland.
“Everything good in the Scottish food and drink sector has come about because of collaboration – but we have to pick up the pace.”
Withers also highlighted greater ambition, market development and brand-building as crucial to the future success of what is now Scotland’s biggest industry, with its £14.4 billion economic value now outstripping oil and gas by £1bn.
Event chair Stephen Jardine said it was on course to hit its 2017 target of £16.5bn, but stressed that “sustaining the momentum requires the right skills across the workforce and innovation to take us into a brave new world”.
Withers agreed: “We have a world-leading way of working, a brand and an identity they would kill for south of the border.
“Growth in food manufacturing in Scotland is running at twice the UK average, but we have to maintain a mentality that we want to continue to grow.
“That means developing markets at home, across the UK and internationally; we need a better balance as we are still too reliant on a small number of powerful players.”
Withers said Scotland Food & Drink was building a plan for 2030, based on major trends in the sector and wider society, especially around the exponential growth in the use of, and time spent on, mobile devices.
He said robotics were coming to the kitchen and raised the prospects of using headsets and implants for us to “enjoy” food virtually.
Brexit was a challenge, said Withers, with 30 per cent of the sector’s workforce in Scotland composed of EU nationals and 80 per cent of food exports from Scotland going to Europe.
However, Withers said the opportunities also had to be recognised, including the chance for the UK to be “fleet of foot” in striking trade deals with countries like the United States, Japan and China, which were difficult when all EU nations had to sign up.
The labour market was a big issue, he insisted: “We have to recognise skills at all levels, from seasonal labour in the fruit sector to complex project skills.”
Lucinda Bruce-Gardyne of Genius Foods said more must be done to retain the expertise of highly-skilled foreign workers who were trained in Scotland but then couldn’t get visas to remain.
Alan Stirling of Willis Towers Watson, expert in the management of food and drink sector risk and an event sponsor, praised the speaker line-up for highlighting the catalogue of challenges and opportunities facing the industry.
Stirling reflected on the sentiments captured in Withers’s presentation, particularly the industry’s need to confront constantly changes brought about by regulation, globalisation and technological innovation.
Taking a bite out of the market
Lucinda Bruce-Gardyne, founder of Genius Foods, a £40 million business with 25 products (bread, cakes, pasties and pies).
“We are structural engineers in food. If you take gluten out of flour, there’s nothing to knead or shape, so the science is difficult.
It takes ages but it’s worth it because it can bring normality, convenience and joy to the lives of people who are coeliac.
A gluten-free bakery in Bathgate helped me go from a 2kg bake to 200kg.
I had financial support from Sir Bill Gammell, who was coeliac, then got into 700 Tesco stores – a huge breakthrough.
We flatlined in 2012 and decided to buy the bakery; it’s difficult to innovate if you don’t own your premises.
We now have two other bakeries in England and offices in Edinburgh, France, Germany and Holland.
We have launched in Portugal and Scandinavia and we’re in Australia, the Middle East and the US.
Genius doesn’t think small; we’re really ambitious. We are UK brand leaders in gluten-free bakery, but want to be European leaders.
It’s perfectly doable as long as consumers and their health are at the heart of what we do.
It’s about quality, availability and keeping the price as low as possible. We want to be yummy, genuine, loved.
Innovation is about blending experience with an entrepreneurial mindset, agility, flexibility, resilience and strong values. That needs a culture where people are open to ideas and welcome challenge.
It’s thinking strategically about what’s important; keeping your focus and embracing the challenge together.”
Erica Moore, founder, eteaket tea shop and tea retailer
“Tea used to be prized and glamorous; I want to get it back there, to create a modern, exciting British tea culture with the highest quality leaf tea and innovative products.
I visited tea masters in India and Sri Lanka before setting up eteaket tea-room in Edinburgh. Immediately we were asked if people could buy our tea to sell.
We are in Tom Kitchin and Gordon Ramsay restaurants, delicatessens, hotels and Holland & Barrett.
We have been exporting – there is a big demand for British tea in places like Japan – and innovating.
We have developed a tea-infused beer (a smoky porter using Lapsang tea), as well as tea-infused latte kits and tea syphons, which allow us to brew tea with a lot more flavour.
We are also looking at food service innovation, like showing cafes and delis used to serving “normal” tea how to make tea lattes and tea hot chocolates, even tea cocktails.
In November, we are opening a new retail store in central Edinburgh (and hope to open more later) and we are working with Harris Gin on a tea gin.
My tea bushes in Edinburgh (with an extra twang of sea air in Portobello) are starting to flower and I’m optimistic about an exciting and innovative future growing our retail, wholesale and export markets.”
Jimmy Buchan, trawlerman for 40 years, 30 as a skipper. Founder, Skipper’s Choice seafood boxes
“I’ve seen huge changes and taken innovative approaches to improving techniques and promoting sustainable fishing.
The old philosophy was catching cod and haddock, piling it high and selling it cheap; that wasn’t sustainable.
We have a duty to be stewards of the sea and I’m proud to be part of improving industry standards.
We now only catch a fraction of what we did in the past and for me, it’s mainly monkfish and langoustines.
I’ve been part of the Fishing for Litter scheme to clean up the seas for ten years, and I’ve worked to reduce the amount of juvenile fish in the by-catch.
We have innovated to improve our nets to separate out the langoustines and the white fish much better.
That helps the environment and makes economic sense for the fishermen, as we improve the value of the by-catch.
I’m also passionate about promoting the great seafood from around Scotland’s coastline. Skipper’s Choice vacuum packs fresh, high-quality seafood and delivers it quickly.
The way it is packed means it can be frozen if you don’t want to eat it immediately and I challenge people to tell the difference between it and fresh seafood.
If customers aren’t happy, they can return it and get their money back.
Skipper’s Choice is a real innovation; it’s about provenance, quality and sustainability. I’m on a journey and I continue on that journey.”
The next Scotsman Conference is a business breakfast on the Future of Forestry in Scotland on 3 November 2016. For more information visit www.scotsmanconferences.com