Boom in Scotland’s food-and-drink sector could be put at risk if Theresa May fails to agree a deal with the European Union, writes Stephen Jardine.
If you want to see something scary, take a look at the Brexit Countdown Clock. Various versions are available online and one of them was projected onto the big screen at this week’s Scotsman Food and Drink Conference. Showing just 205 days to go, it was a sobering reminder of the race against time to avoid a hard Brexit. Those gathered at the EICC hardly needed the memory jog. From farmers to whisky producers, from brewers to chocolatiers, all of those taking part in the Beyond Brexit event have a vested interest in a successful outcome.
So much is at stake. Food and drink is the fastest growing part of the Scottish economy, worth £14 billion a year. The Scottish Government has set an ambitious target of doubling that to £30bn by 2030 but Brexit is in the way. At the moment, 70 per cent of our food and drink exports go to the European Union. For exports of agricultural products, that figure rises to 90 per cent. All the conference speakers emphasised the importance of a deal being struck. “A no-deal Brexit would give us very real difficulties with our exports,” said Scotch Whisky Association chief executive Karen Betts.
However any gloom about the prospects was matched by sense of optimism that the food and drink sector in Scotland can navigate a way through, whatever happens. “Scotch has been exporting for 150 years facing many changes and overcoming many challenges, including two world wars and prohibition in America. I’m confident we can continue to succeed through and beyond Brexit,” said Ms Betts. Top quality produce with a strong story behind it should help the sector weather the storm of Brexit and industry representatives from salmon, whisky and farming revealed they were cooperating to share experience and mitigate the worst challenges that could lie ahead.
Many said their companies were simply trying to make the best of a bad situation. Part of that might involve more collective marketing and promotion. Perceptions of the quality of Scottish food and drink have increased dramatically in the last 10 years with Scotland now leading the rest of the UK in that appreciation.
That might pave the way for a Buy Scottish campaign immediately post Brexit to further boost the profile of our produce here at home and abroad. “In China, the word Scotland on our packaging evokes passion and excitement and delivers a 10 per cent dividend in revenues,” said Julie Hesketh Laird of the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation. Scotland the brand is likely to become even more important from next year. If the product and the passion are in place to find a way through Brexit, the people who will help take us there remain an issue.
This week the UK Government announced a new temporary visa scheme to allow non-EU workers to come here to pick seasonal fruit and vegetables. That has been a real concern amongst Scottish farmers who’ve already seen crops rotting in the fields due to labour shortages.
The two-year pilot scheme will help tackle that but it is not a long term solution and Petra Wetzel who runs WEST Brewery in Glasgow has noticed a change in labour supply. “I used to get applicants from France, Germany and Poland but I’ve had no European applications for a year due to all the uncertainty”, she said.
Next week there will be less than 200 days left on the Brexit clock. The food and drink sector is an industry with strength, depth and a global reputation. Let’s hope that is enough to ensure it continues to succeed even when the politicians fail.