Subscribe to Holyrood updates

Newsletter sign-up

Subscribe

Follow us

Scotland’s fortnightly political & current affairs magazine

Subscribe

Subscribe to Holyrood
Feeding the nation

Feeding the nation

Food and drink is worth millions to the economy – it is the only sector that continues to grow despite tough financial times – and Scottish Food and Drink fortnight, which runs until this Sunday, is aimed at getting more people to look at what is available on their own doorstep.

That is why Environment Secretary Richard Lochhead, Michelin-starred chef Tom Kitchin and chief executive of Scotland Food and Drink, James Withers were tucked into a food van on The Mound in Edinburgh recently, handing out organic porridge oats to passers-by, as a publicity stunt that aimed to build the brand of Scottish produce even more.

And yet, while everybody involved is behind the slogan of ‘buy local’, there would seem to be a chasm of difference in exactly what that means. On the one side, the main purpose is to boost local economies and turn successful small companies into even more successful larger ones. But on the other, the guiding principle is to promote a more sustainable future, cutting down fuel miles by truck and air.

A YouGov Sixth Sense poll, commissioned for the start of Food and Drink Fortnight, showed that 54 per cent of Scots wanted to see Scottish food available at their supermarket and 43 per cent of the country wanted to see locally sourced food when eating out.

Fife Diet, which has been running for five years, is Scotland’s most successful local food project and the largest in Europe, which 10 September 2012 www.holyrood.com 23 encourages its members to take measures to eat locally and sustainably.

Members of the group sign up to taking a number of more sustainable approaches to their food consumption – buying more locally grown products, composting, reducing their food waste, growing their own food, eating organic produce and reducing the amount of meat in their diet.

Chairman Mike Small said its 4,000 members had been able to half their carbon footprint through taking steps to ensure their food comes from more local sources. “We start from the basic point of view that we have an environmental crisis, we are in danger of moving towards runaway climate change. The Scottish Government has shown remarkable leadership in terms of climate change legislation but the problem is, the way we produce, consume and distribute food at the moment accounts for more than 30 per cent of the UK’s CO2 emissions.

“We need to change the way we do food if we’re going to meet our climate change targets of 42 per cent by 2020 – that’s just eight years.

“In food, you’ve got two huge vested interests that are obstacles to big change, retailers and farming – neither of whom have any big interest in making significant changes and both are quite powerful in the sector.”

He adds: “At the same time you’ve got a consumer network building in scale and confidence, who are demanding local food, they want to know where their food comes from.” Small refers to a “local food revolution” and wants to see key parts of Scotland’s food networks, its abattoirs and dairies, for example, decentralised, with more emphasis on a regional focus in their production.

There has been a growing trend too in supermarkets to promote local food, although Small is doubtful about the green credentials of big chains like supermarkets or fast-food restaurants – calling it “greenwash”.

One of his group’s 20-point manifesto is a moratorium on further expansion of supermarkets. Although larger out-of-town developments are no longer springing up across Scotland, many supermarkets have policies of setting up smaller shops, such as Tesco Metro and Sainsbury’s Local – causing concern in communities that they were forcing out independent retailers.
He said: “We need to think of the consequences of further saturation of the market by the supermarkets. If you look at towns like Inverness, where it’s well over the 50 per cent retail threshold, you couldn’t have that in any other sector.

“If you question people, there’s huge support for having some kind of control.

“This isn’t to say abolish supermarkets, this is just to say stop the further expansion of the monopoly.”

However, David Paterson, head of regional affairs at Asda, argues that a moratorium on expanding supermarkets would stop the growth of the country’s food industry.

He told Holyrood: “There’s a role for a range of different players in the market, and we’re supportive of smaller-scale community food groups. The idea that they’re going to feed the nation and they are going to provide the 1.7m customers we see in our shops every week in Scotland, isn’t credible.

“Particularly at a time when customers are struggling with some of the lowest disposable incomes that we have seen in the last four or five years, we bring competition to the market. We lower prices and invest in jobs.”

Paterson says the company, which has 54 stores across Scotland, is dedicated to being an active part of the communities they are built in, this includes promoting both the local food and the producers.

Asda has a team of buyers who target small and medium suppliers, with the aim of bringing them in to supply some or all of their stores.

The emphasis is on both supporting local producers and helping them develop their businesses. He cites the example of the Edinburgh Smoked Salmon Company, based in Dingwall, which now provides all the own-brand salmon in Asda’s stores UK-wide, increasing its turnover from about £4m to more than £26m.

“We’ve seen over the past few years a growing desire from consumers in Scotland for Scottish and local products,” he said. “That’s very much been at the heart of our drive to increase the amount of local sourcing that we do.”

However, Mike Small says supermarkets are “structurally incapable” of delivering truly local food.

He said: “There was a famous example in England where a large carrot farmer wanted to do a deal with a supermarket chain. The supermarket was up for this because they thought this would be great PR.

“They bought the carrots from this local farmer, then shipped them halfway up England to Newcastle to get packaged and then down to Birmingham to get re-cleaned and cut.

“By the time they get represented as – this is local food from the farm down the road – they’ve been on a journey round the country.

“That happens every time supermarkets try and do local food. So it completely, obviously, destroys the whole purpose, which is less trucking and shipping and transport.”

Paterson argues a supermarket like Asda can offer a larger scale of efficiency for small producers and being part of a larger network is not a disadvantage in terms of reducing the carbon footprint as smaller firms need only make one delivery to Asda’s central Scottish depot in Grangemouth near Falkirk.

Since 2007 the company has been trying to lower its own carbon footprint. UK-wide, it produces 62 tonnes of CO2-equivalent for every £1m sales, compared to 83 tonnes in 2007.

Figures have not been calculated for Scotland specifically, but it is likely to be about 11 per cent of its national cut of 148,892 tonnes. The next step, he says, is targeting its supply chain to ensure that it can become greener as well.

In packaging too, the company is trying to become more sustainable.

Asda, like many other supermarkets, is signed up to the Courtauld Commitment, a voluntary agreement to reduce packaging waste. Between 2005 and 2010 it reduced the weight of packaging by 25 per cent and the carbon impact was cut by nearly 10 per cent between 2009 and 2010.

Supermarkets and other retailers in Scotland will be affected by the Government’s intended plastic bag tax, which would see a 5p levy on plastic bags – and the money raised going towards environmental measures.

Environment Secretary Richard Lochhead launched a consultation on the bag levy in June as part of the Government’s Zero Waste plans, and said he wanted to make the concept of a “throw-away society” become “alien and unacceptable.”

“There’s a huge amount of work that’s gone into packaging,” says Paterson, “the thing we’ve always got to be clear about is packaging has a purpose as well. In some cases there’s a direct relationship between it and food waste.

“Without it, enormous amounts of food would rot before reaching the mouths of our customers and their families. But, we do agree it must be reduced as much as possible whilst still protecting the product.”

He adds that this green drive has been partly customer-led, but also the industry has taken responsibility for its actions. “There’s undoubtedly been greater interest, particularly in Scottish sourcing over the last few years, there’s clearly a demand and we will follow that demand.

“In terms of the wider sustainability agenda, that’s something that we’ve been working on for a long time and it’s hugely important to us because actually operating in a sustainable way saves us money as well. There’s a huge benefit to us in cost reduction to being more energy efficient.”

A common theme for champions of local food is seasonality. Eating food in season reduces the need to bring food hundreds of miles across the globe – and cuts down on carbon emissions.

According to Scotland Food and Drink, there are 20 types of seasonal Scottish produce available at any given time of the year. Asparagus is the famous example cited by many.

According to Mike Berners-Lee’s book, How Bad Are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything, a 250g pack of UK-grown asparagus has a CO2 footprint of 125g, compared to 3.5kg if it is eaten in January, needing to be airfreighted from Peru.

Tom Kitchin, whose restaurant in Leith follows his philosophy of “from nature to plate” believes that people have to get to know more about the food they are eating and ensure they eat in season.
Speaking to Holyrood, he emphasised the importance of people going to farmers’ markets and experiencing the different sorts of food Scotland has to offer, finding out who produced it and becoming more involved.

This is not just something for the diners at his restaurant to experience, he has also been to schools in Scotland to help children to understand about seasonality.

“If you eat a Scottish raspberry at this time of year and you eat one from somewhere else, there is no comparison,” he says. “There is a burst of flavour.” “This is not just influencing the children, it is also influencing the parents; they are the ones who are buying the ready meals” And he added, people could make a difference with just small lifestyle changes.

“We are here for the long term. If we can do it little by little the result will be fantastic.”

But while everybody champions the causes of eating fresh local produce, there are still products consumed in vast quantities every day that have to be brought from elsewhere. As well as bananas, coffee, wine, chocolate and tea, rice and pulses also form part of many people’s diet.

There is no way of making them local and Mike Small says we shouldn’t try to.

“This isn’t retreating into a parochial mindset where everything comes from Scotland or my region, this is about saying what’s appropriate to import and export.

“We say to people they could aim for an 80/20split, where 80 per cent of their food could be locally sourced and 20 per cent, the stuff you are likely never to be able to get here. It’s not about being puritanical, it’s about common sense.”

Since coming to power in 2007, the SNP has been keen to champion Scotland’s food and drink sector. The annual Food and Drink fortnight is part of that. Hundreds of events have been taking place across the country aiming to show off the best of what the country can offer, it has brought in chefs, farmers and visitor attractions with the aim of attracting tourists and residents to eat and drink more Scottish produce.

Events this year have included the Dundee Flower and Food Festival, the first-ever Taste Ayrshire Festival and special farmers’ markets are being held the length and breadth of the country.
At Edinburgh Airport to entice the 25,000 visitors a day, stalls containing selected Scottish produce have also been set up.

Last year turnover in the country’s food and drink sector grew six per cent and exports reached an all-time high of £5.4bn, 10 per cent up on 2010.

Environment Secretary Richard Lochhead said he hoped the campaign would help more hotels, restaurants and cafés stock up on local food as well as encouraging more people to eat local produce.

The Government has also announced a £1m fund to promote the industry in 2014, the year when both the Commonwealth Games and Ryder Cup are coming to Scotland, as well as it being the second Year of Homecoming.

Lochhead said there would be “unprecedented opportunities to showcase the magnificent produce Scotland has to offer.” He added: “Here in Scotland, we produce some of the world’s finest produce and 2014will offer us incredible opportunities to showcase our food and drink to the world, broaden the market for our goods overseas and boost our already booming export market. This is good news for our economy, good news for our producers and good news for Scotland.”

The investment will fund an action plan and help businesses prepare for 2014.

Included in the upcoming projects as Scotland markets itself on the world stage, is the Glasgow 2014 catering services contracts, worth up to £8m.

Lochhead added: “We have prepared our 2014 Action Plan to help Scottish food and drink firms maximise their competitive advantage and ensure they’re well placed to capitalise on the economic opportunities on offer and to promote Scotland’s reputation as a land of food and drink.”

This week Scotland Food and Drink will confirm its new target for exports. Chief executive James Withers told Holyrood in June he expected to meet the £12.5bn target for exports in 2012, five years early.

It’s success has been built predominantly on whisky which continues to be popular across the globe – particularly in emerging markets like Brazil and China. But it has also been buoyed by the success of Scottish seafood.

Small says: “If the Scottish Government is celebrating selling lots of whisky, I say good on them, well done, that’s a unique product. But if we’re celebrating exporting a seafood, that has to be refrigerated to the other side of the world, coming from a fish farm, I don’t see any benefit and ultimately we’re undermining the brand of Scotland’s food if we don’t maintain quality and natural products at the heart of what we’re doing.

“We do have amazing seafood, we don’t eat a lot of it ourselves. It’s the same with berries. People say to me, what do you do for fruit, and you think, Scotland is actually the largest exporter of soft fruit in Europe – but again, we don’t eat enough of it ourselves.

“If we ate more of our good seafood, more of our good soft fruit, we’d be healthier and it would be good for our economy. So we don’t have to have this model of looking for massive exports to build our food economy, it’s just a bit of a more nuanced approach.”

But Withers said it was important for there to be a mix, focusing on local food, big business and exports.

He said: “It is absolutely right that we should be buying local when we can.

“The reality is that 90 per cent of our food and drink comes from the big supermarkets.” While he added that the aim was still to get more people from Scotland eating what it produces, there are big efforts being put into exports.

The organisation has already set up a permanent ambassador in Shanghai, because China has shown it has a large appetite for Scottish produce, including salmon and whisky and another office is to be set up in Germany.

Food exports have risen 62 per cent in four years and whisky by 50 per cent – it is now worth £4.3bn.

It is important, though, when discussing food and drink sustainability, not only to focus on the images of premium and high-end products.

Small insists the push for local produce is not just a trendy concern for people with money to spend.

He says: “People often say for the organic sector ‘that’s only a middle class concern’. In local food it’s different. What we’ve seen in the recession is actually a toughening up of the local food market, which suggests that there’s something else going on.

“People want to support local producers. There’s multiple reasons for people wanting to have local food. Some of it is about health, some of it’s about provenance and to know where their food comes from and some it’s about sustainability. I think that’s a much wider demographic than you’d assume.

“There was a recent Scottish Agricultural College poll done that said something like 65 per cent of people are interested in wanting local food. So that’s gone mainstream. That’s really gone from a peripheral interest to mainstream in a five year period.”

Fife Diet receives some funding from the Scottish Government and is also due to start compiling statistics within the next year on where people shop and a carbon analysis on what the emissions are.

Small has met ministers from the Government – and that has also included meeting with Public Health Minister Michael Matheson, because the group sees its agenda as crossing into health issues as well – encouraging people to eat less processed food.

There are many differences in opinion between his and other organisations and the supermarket chains, but one of the central ones is on the issue of choice.

“Everything about our society tells us that this is good,” he says. “Choice is good and endless choice is even better.

But in fact what we’ve experienced is when you have less choice, you have a richer food experience, because you begin to know what variety of potato or beetroot is this or where is this lettuce from?

“You actually explore in real depth rather than just having this very shallow experience of a much wider range of foods.”

Holyrood Newsletters

Holyrood provides comprehensive coverage of Scottish politics, offering award-winning reporting and analysis: Subscribe

Stay in the know with our fortnightly magazine

Stay in the know with our fortnightly magazine

Subscribe

Popular reads
Back to top