Comment: Food exports could be key to Scotland’s economic health

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EVEN a cursory glance at the 99-year history of NFU Scotland reveals that a fair percentage of its time and energy has been spent either repelling imports or raging against export bans.

This is not surprising as some of the food flooding into this country has come with an unfair advantage – the current example is the use of sow stalls in Europe long after the UK put in place a unilateral ban.

Further back in the 1970s, there were great inequalities in the then EEC currency system that damaged the whole farming industry, none more so then the pig sector.

Danish bacon and pork entered this country in vast quantities aided by benign monetary compensatory allowances, while home producers were hit with adverse “green pound” valuations. I pause to point out that Europe has always specialised in obscure and complex financial equations.

Possibly the most iniquitous imbalance came in the late 1970s and early 1980s and it saw the small Clyde Valley tomato industry vanish under the importation of Dutch tomatoes grown with the help of subsidised gas for heating their glasshouses.

Other importations may not have had this unfairness, but when they threatened the home industry, it was not long before the NFU was in there with dockside protests. Demonstrations at Stranraer in the 1990s saw Scottish farmers try to stop the entry of Irish beef and with the earlier demo, Irish cattle.

So over the years there has been a fair amount of anger over food coming into this country and there have also been battles to keep export markets open – most notably in recent years when mad cow disease spread through the minds of a few cattle and many politicians.

A couple of decades earlier, there was a massive dispute as the French government decided it wanted to protect its sheep farmers and unilaterally banned exports of lamb from this country, thus plunging our home market into the economic doldrums.

Now I wonder if we are on the cusp of change with a more open mind to trading in food – provided it is done on the proverbial level playing field.

This coming week, politicians and businessmen and women in the food industry are heading out to Japan and China, spearheading a Scottish and UK food export drive.

Last month I accompanied meat exporters to the major food fair in Paris where the drive to send more Scottish beef, lamb and pork into Europe and the wider world was focussed.

This latter expedition is now a regular feature and exports to parts of Europe by our red meat industry is acclaimed by those who use such jargon as “mature”.

But the wider point is that both the Scottish and UK governments are now putting their weight behind selling more food and drink abroad and they are prepared to go where we have not ventured previously.

For students of economics, there is surely a thesis and possibly a doctorate from studying the current situation which is a complete reversal of trade in the past two centuries.

The dissertation would be titled: “Why a former industrial country such as the UK, which exported machinery in the form of ships, trains and manufacturing equipment throughout the world while importing food in exchange, is now in the position of importing loads of cars, IT and white goods while hopefully basing its future on selling food and drink.”

Now, I admit that I have always viewed food and drink export figures from Scotland with a degree of scepticism as they are heavily skewed by the performance of the whisky industry. Currently that sector is booming and any food and drink targets set by government are achieved with great ­alleluias and possibly a raised glass of the cratur from the politicians.

In order to deal with some of my scepticism about food exports, this past week, I listened to James Withers, the chief executive of industry body Scotland Food and Drink, and also a former top man at the NFUS.

As he went through his presentation spewing out figures, anecdotes and encouraging words, I thought to myself: I sincerely hope he does not catch religion in a bad way at any point in the future as he could be a dangerous hellfire evangelist.

Such was his passion for increasing food exports that I came out believing that exporting food would be the saving of the farming industry in this country, regardless of the minutiae of the forthcoming reform of the Common Agricultural Policy.