Local food revolution is gathering pace

Scots are more likely to seek and purchase local produce than in most other parts of the UK, says David Lamb

Organiser Mike Small launched Blasda Scottish Food Feast (Blasda is Gaelic for delicious). Picture: Colin Hattersley

The recent Commonwealth Games provided Scotland, and Glasgow in particular, with the chance to showcase its warmth, spirit and individuality. They also offered an opportunity for Scotland to showcase the diversity of food and drink produced on these shores. With such a prestigious event, held over a wide range of venues, it was a challenge to ensure Scottish food was a focus, but organisers were determined this vibrant industry should be highlighted as one of Scotland’s key attractions. It is encouraging evidence that, nationally, local food and drink is a growing priority.

Local Scottish produce was perhaps best displayed in “The Kitchen” on Glasgow Green. Over just 12 days, thousands of Games attendees visited the Scotland Food & Drink Village, a collection of 25 producers showcasing their high-quality, locally-produced food and drink. All of the Scottish producers participating were able to discuss the provenance and processes that had gone into their products and the visitors I spoke to were highly impressed with the fare on offer.

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At other venues there was also a significant effort made to ensure a good range of local food was available. This marks progress, not only in the way procurement was approached by event organisers but also by illustrating changing attitudes about the value of local food and drink. Criticism has been made of the lack of healthy choices available at venues, which shows that further progress is required to change attitudes, although that may be down to influencing demand as much as supply.

While we know that in the past decade our interest in local food and drink has grown it is often difficult to quantify what that means in economic terms. We do know that since the first farmers’ market in Perth in 2002 we now have over 100 farmers’ markets and community markets in Scotland. There are an estimated 300 farm shops, delis and specialist retailers across the country, from the small-scale honesty boxes selling vegetables and eggs through to the impressive farm shops combining cafés, restaurants and visitor attractions.

The local food revolution is well underway. In this country we are more likely to seek and purchase local food than in most other parts of the UK and the desire to source as locally as possible is increasingly extending beyond markets and shops into schools, hospitals and canteens.

It is important to support small producers because in many ways they characterise Scotland’s food and drink industry. We have a number of world-class businesses operating on a small scale, particularly relative to the global competition. This has been recognised in the backing given to initiatives like Think Local, which is funded by the Scottish Government as part of its food marketing advisory activity and managed by Scotland’s Rural College. The initiative understands the need to develop the skills and capability of small companies. By encouraging businesses to work together, Think Local is helping them to grow.

But we cannot rest on our laurels. We have to make sure our producers and retailers have the best information and tools to develop the market. It isn’t just for their benefit but for the benefit of visitors who already know about our whisky, salmon, shortbread and beef but who might not be so aware of some of our other products. Scotland is a destination of choice for many visitors, thanks to the Commonwealth Games and Ryder Cup, so we have to make sure that those visitors taste the best that Scotland has to offer and can be made aware where to get it, when it is available and where it comes from.

Work is already underway in these areas, with the development of food trails which can link geography with products such as seafood and even chocolate.

Chocolate may not be native to Scotland but we now have more than 60 high-end chocolatiers featured on a tourist trail, allowing visitors to find fantastic chocolate, in whichever region they are holidaying.

This trail represents an increasing focus in the local food and drink industry – encouraging businesses to work together both to create products and to improve the customer experience. Banding together gives them a larger platform, greater access, greater awareness and ultimately improves Scotland’s reputation as a land of food and drink.

The note of caution in all this is that we must improve the food and drink choices people living in Scotland make. That may mean striving to make nutritious good food affordable, and enabling those with the poorest diets to choose the food that is best and not just the cheapest.

If we develop a culture where we value and demand local food and drink, we can become a nation which prioritises natural ingredients, eats healthily and takes pride in our land and the sumptuous larder it offers.

• David Lamb is SRUC Senior Food Marketing Consultant and Project Director for Think Local, the Scottish Government’s local food & drink development programme managed by Scotland’s Rural College.