Stephen Jardine: '˜Food' omission must not lead to complacency

Why is food missing from the job titles in the Scottish Cabinet, asks Stephen Jardine

The word 'food' was left out of Fergus Ewing's title. Picture: John Devlin
The word 'food' was left out of Fergus Ewing's title. Picture: John Devlin

At lunch after last week’s meeting of the new Scottish Cabinet one question would have been perfectly understandable. Where is the food?

Last year the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Environment Richard Lochhead pushed for food to be added to his job title. The Scottish Cabinet agreed and so it was that for the final term of his tenure, Scotland had a Minister for Rural Affairs, Food and the Environment.

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In the bonfire of responsibilities after this month’s election, that title has gone with the man who held it. Despite speculation about his departure being linked to late farm payments, the honest truth is that he stepped down to spend more time with his children and his wife who has been unwell. It doesn’t get more honourable. He leaves behind a brilliant track record guiding food and drink in Scotland to global success, but what now?

Responsibility now lies with the new Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity Fergus Ewing. His previous work for the tourism sector has been highly praised so food seems in safe hands but the simple matter is, the four-letter world is missing from his job title.

In the grand scheme of things, that might not seem like a big deal but it is a mark of significance. If it’s in the job title, it is signalled as important. That’s why connectivity is underlined in Mr Ewing’s new role. So why isn’t food a priority any more ?

With food and drink exports from Scotland due to pass £7 billion next year, the fear is that some in Government may believe the work is done.

“The biggest worry is complacency,” one industry leader told me this week. “The sector seems buoyant so it may no longer look like a priority to Government but the truth is that overseas exports are slowing and south of the border is stagnant.”

The government will say food is still a priority for the new Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy. But here is the problem. If you live in Granton and eat in Greggs, food is an urban rather than a rural issue. Of course primary production is important and we need more people to understand where their food comes from, but you could argue just as easily that food belongs in the health portfolio as much as rural affairs.

One of the first food appointments this week for Fergus Ewing was with Scottish farmers, angry over delayed EU subsidy payments. That situation needs to be sorted and confidence restored but food is so much more than a production funding mechanic. From GM foods to sugar taxes and obesity, food is one of the hottest health and political issues around and that should ensure it has clout in the Cabinet.

Food is always best served when someone passionate really cares about it and goes that extra mile to make a difference. In Scotland right now it seems like we need that cheerleader to stop food and drink sliding off the agenda at the top table at a crucial moment.

Mr Ewing is to face the industry for the first time at the annual Scotland Food and Drink Excellence Awards. A lot will be expected and some substantial reassurance when it comes to the importance of the sector might be a very good place to start.