Stephen Jardine: How Scotland’s food stopped being a deep-fried joke

The last decade has seen appetites for Scotland's food and drink grow
The last decade has seen appetites for Scotland's food and drink grow
Have your say

Scotland Food & Drink has helped transform the sector in 10 years with turnoved up 44 per cent, writes Stephen Jardine.

Everyone who is anyone in the world of food and drink gathered at the National Museum of Scotland on Thursday for a special celebration.

The occasion was the 10th anniversary of Scotland Food & Drink, the industry leadership organisation established in 2007 to develop the sector.

The world was a different place back then. Gordon Brown had just become Prime Minister, Alex Salmond was named Politician of the Year and the global economic crisis was just a rumour. Scotland was also waking up to the fact that it just happened to be home to some of the best produce in the world.

After years of being a deep-fried joke, Scotland’s food and drink sector was ripe for a makeover and it came in 2007. With farmers markets booming, new artisan producers emerging and a fresh wave of innovative chefs like Tom Kitchen opening restaurants, everything came together to cement the foundations for change.

Along with the produce came the politics. The SNP won the Scottish Parliament elections in 2007 and took power at Holyrood for the first time. Suddenly there was an increased focus on everything that made Scotland distinctive. Inevitably, that included our national larder.

READ MORE: Food & Drink Voices: How can we take advantage of £30bn opportunity?

Against that background, Scotland Food & Drink was born but it wasn’t an easy labour. David Thompson, who ran the Government’s food-and-drink team at the time, recollects: “For a few years, Scotland Food & Drink wasn’t a done deal. It was still on a shaky footing and many of the trade associations and much of the public sector remained to be convinced by the fledgling organisation.”

Given that, its success has been all the more astonishing, particularly since it set up shop on the cusp of a global financial crisis. In ten years, food and drink industry turnover has jumped 44 per cent to £14 billion with exports up 110 per cent.

Food and drink is now our fastest growing export and best-performing domestic sector. But Scotland Food & Drink’s greatest achievement is more than just numbers on a spreadsheet. “There is now a culture of collaboration and partnership between industry and government together with a sense of pride in the product,” chief executive James Withers told me.

Much of that comes down to his inspirational leadership but it also required the Scottish Government to step back and let the sector grow and for the industry to set aside rivalries and differences and work together.

READ MORE: Food and drink industry calls for talent on tap

On that basis Scotland Food & Drink more than deserves its special celebration. Especially as the hardest times probably lie ahead.

The organisation’s new “Ambition 2030” strategy sets a target of doubling food and drink turnover to £30bn in the next 12 years.

In normal times that would already by an ambitious expectation but everything now is far from normal. Brexit remains the great conundrum with future food regulations, access to markets and labour supply all essential but unknown. Some believe it could further unlock our global potential but others fear it could jeopardise so much of the good work so far.

There is also increasing mechanisation and more and more legislation around environmental issues and health. What is clear is Scotland needs a membership leadership organisation for the food and drink sector like never before. Over the next 10 years its loud voice will have to grow louder to cut through all the challenges and ensure the farmers, the fishing industry, manufacturers and producers have the help and encouragement to thrive and continue to grow. It also has a vital role to play driving the changes required to improve our nation’s health.

Get all that right and the 20th anniversary really will be something to celebrate.