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by Neil Evans
24 September 2013
Good food for all

Good food for all

An annual fortnight devoted to the very best in Scotland’s food and drink has just come to an end and amid the celebrations of everything from Dundee Cake to the finest Scottish cheddar was the news that the industry’s turnover target had been smashed six years early.

In 2009 the industry set itself a goal of achieving yearly revenue of £12.5bn by 2017. An ambitious target that would see the entire sector grow by nearly 15 per cent.

But, fuelled by hikes across the sector, including a 20 per cent increase in the value of food manufacturing between 2008 and 2011, the turnover for 2011, according to official figures was already £13.1bn.

With a Bank of Scotland report predicting thousands of new jobs being created in the food and drink sector and some of the world’s top chefs, like Andrew Fairlie, and Tom Kitchin, championing Scottish cuisine from their Michelin-starred restaurants, things have never looked better.

Levels of obesity are still unacceptably high and an analysis of the national diet shows that people are still eating too much fat, too much sugar and not enough fruit and vegetables.However, while business is booming and the battle to improve the image of Scotland’s food is undoubtedly being won, question marks remain over the benefits it is bringing to all parts of the country.

Scotland has the third highest obesity rate in OECD countries. In 2010, 27 per cent of adults in Scotland were judged to be obese, predicted to rise to more than 40 per cent by 2030 and it currently costs the Scottish economy up to £3bn.

Whether because it is deemed too expensive, being exported elsewhere or just not convenient, the quality food that is championed from farmhouse door to the plate on your table, just isn’t being served up in every home.

Scottish Food and Drink Fortnight saw more than 200 events held right across the country highlighting the best of ‘Scotland’s larder’.

Rural Affairs Secretary Richard Lochhead told Holyrood he wanted everybody “to be part of the food and drink revolution.”

He said: “It’s not only about the exporting of luxury products like Scotch whisky, it’s also about encouraging more Scots to enjoy their own larder on their own doorstep.

“We have undertaken a number of measures to try and achieve that, ranging from ‘eat in season’ campaigns to encourage shoppers to buy fruit and veg that’s in season – which of course is nutritious and fresh – and going into classrooms to encourage people to eat seafood.”

He added that there was work under way with the Scottish Food and Drink Federation looking at reformulation of food products to reduce the sugar and salt contents of products.

“Clearly that’s got to become a higher priority in the times ahead given Scotland’s challenges and health record,” he said.

The Cabinet Secretary, who has been the SNP’s spokesman on rural and environment issues since 1999, admitted that there needed to be more work to promote the healthy and nutritious food on offer to Scottish families, but highlighted schemes already under way to do this.

“Scottish food is more than ever about fresh seasonal food, it’s about seafood, it’s about our soft berry sector and I’m very keen to find new ways to promote what I refer to as ‘Scottish superfoods’.

A report released by the Food Standards Agency last year assessing performance against Scottish Government Dietary Targets showed that while there had been progress, there was still room for improvement.

As of 2009, the average intake of fruit and vegetables was 279g per day – compared to the target of 400g and the average daily amount of fat was 39.1g, above the recommended intake of no more than 35g.
Almost all the indicators had seen improvements over the last decade, but were still short of their targets.

However, at the same time as the focus on growing the business of Scottish food, scientific research has been going on for a century on the all-important link between food and health.

John Boyd Orr, who was the first director of the Rowett Institute, which was founded 100 years ago this year, explored the link between milk and healthy growth in children. His research led to the Clement Attlee government introducing free milk for children in schools in 1946, a measure that was only taken away (under a Margaret Thatcher reform when she was in charge of education) in 1971.

The Food and Drink Federation, which also celebrates its centenary in 2013, has been working to make the food its members supply healthier.

Between 2008 and 2013, there has been a 10 per cent reduction in salt levels in all FDF products. In Scotland, the Scottish Food and Drink Federation has given advice to some of its companies, including Macleans Highlands Bakery in Moray, and across 26 producers there has been a 12-20 per cent reduction in salt content – a factor in heart disease.
Funded by £250,000 over three years from the Scottish Government, it is also going out to more SMEs and will be holding workshops across the country.

But while this work is ongoing and progress is being made, Labour’s environment spokeswoman Claire Baker said there did still need to be a more all-encompassing strategy for food.

She said: “We don’t have an over-arching food policy.
“We do have very impressive export figures, big growth sectors, but at the same time in Scotland we see rising numbers going to food banks and we are still struggling to tackle obesity. We need something to bring it all together.”

She added: “If you look at other areas of public health, we’ve had strong messages on smoking, taken strong measures on alcohol, but we’ve not really tackled food and there’s a need for the parliament to do that.
“There’s a lot of positives within our food sector but there are also indicators that suggest as a nation, we need to think about how we produce food, how we consume food.

“I think government struggles to bring all that together, because you’ve got Richard Lochhead very involved in exports and our international standing and those kind of issues, then you’ve got Michael Matheson leading on food standards and then really, when you’re talking about food banks, you’re going into the poverty and welfare briefs.

“I suppose in some ways, the horsemeat scandal at the start of the year kind of focused minds on issues like how do we produce food and how do people consume food?

“It’s about affordability, accessibility. We don’t recognise what a political and economic debate there is around food and I think in Scotland, we need to start to have that debate.

“I don’t know if it’s because there is quite a strong emotional relationship with food. When Richard Simpson proposed a soda tax, the kickback he got from the national media was pretty strong – it was called an ‘Irn Bru tax’. What Richard was trying to do was to come up with measures that recognised we have an obesity issue that puts a strain on the NHS, a strain on our health.”

Representatives from across the food and drink spectrum, including those in charge of government policy, NHS, education and the Food Standards Agency, and scientific research, debated Scotland’s food strategy at a Holyrood conference in Edinburgh.

Professor Julian Mercer from the Rowett Institute, now part of the University of Aberdeen, who was a speaker at the event and who oversees the institute’s work on dietary behaviour and molecular mechanisms, says that in many of the food research and reducing obesity issues, Scotland is leading the way.

The Rowett has projects funded by both the Scottish Government and the European Union looking at both the physiological side – changing diets and reformulating the food that we eat – as well as the psychological side and strategies for behaviour change.

With the help of tests run at the Rowett, retailers have launched ranges, such as Marks and Spencer’s ‘Fuller Longer’ products, which are higher in protein but lower in carbohydrate and fat, meaning that people are less likely to snack between meals.

But how do we avoid the situation of two different food groups – the high end good food that Scotland is famous for, and the specially formulated food ranges aimed to help people keep the weight off?

While Mercer said people with existing serious weight problems would be likely to need a different strategy to help them lose weight, he added: “A lot of the foods Scotland produces are just excellent quality and it would be good to think people could actually eat more of it and have a better diet than they do at the moment.”

He added: “In a Scottish context, whereas the food and drink industry is very important to the economy of the country, we need to make sure that what we do in this area also takes due cognisance of the health issues surrounding what people are eating.

“The initiatives that Scotland has of trying to link up that space with the food and drink industry, such as the Food and Health Innovation Service and its Interface project, we’re certainly supporting those in terms of helping smaller companies see where they could innovate in terms of their product ranges and particularly trying to reformulate towards healthier products in the future.”

And he said: “Scotland does have a bit of a jump on many other parts of Europe in terms of this. I go to Europe quite a bit because I’m involved in three of these EU projects which are in the food area, I think Scotland is actually leading the way in terms of some of these initiatives.”

But the other side to food strategy is affordability and ensuring people who live here have access to ‘Scotland’s larder’.
Perhaps the most extreme example of this gap is the controversial issue of food banks.

Earlier this year the Trussell Trust, the largest provider of food banks in the UK, reported that more than 350,000 people had sought help in the last year, almost three times the number who received food aid in the previous year.

In Scotland, the trust said 14,318 people were helped during 2012-13, up from 5,726 the previous year. It said almost a third of these cases were children.

Accessibility has been a key issue and earlier this year, Oxfam Scotland and Church Action on Poverty launched a damning report on the rise and need for food banks in Scotland.

Their joint report, Walking the Breadline, warned more than half a million people across the UK could be going hungry and identified the cause of the rise in food banks as being changes to the benefit system, unemployment, increasing levels of underemployment, low and falling income and rising food and fuel prices. Changes to the benefit system are the most common reasons for people using food banks; these include changes to crisis loan eligibility rules, delays in payments, Jobseeker’s Allowance sanctions and sickness benefit reassessments.

The issue has been an increasingly political one, with Scottish-born UK Education Secretary Michael Gove claiming that pressures on families struggling to buy essentials like food or school uniforms were “often the result of decisions that they have taken which mean they are not best able to manage their finances.”

Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver also waded into the row over the link between poverty and hunger when he criticised poor communities where people ate ready meals.

Judith Robertson, Head of Oxfam Scotland, said: “We all need enough income to properly feed ourselves and our families. That’s a basic need and it’s scandalous that in the UK – the seventh richest country in the world – we now have hundreds of thousands who are reliant on food aid. Cuts to social safety nets have gone too far and we now need an urgent inquiry into links between welfare cuts, benefit changes and food poverty.

“The other side of this equation is rising food prices and the inability of people to get involved in food production. It’s clear that many Scots have a growing interest in producing sustainable, local food that is affordable and healthy. But too often, communities are simply unable to find land to grow on.

“We need to change that, and we hope that the forthcoming Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill will help unlock Scotland’s food potential to the benefit of everyone.”

One solution to ensure people get better access to food is, of course, for them to grow it themselves and there has been a groundswell of support for local authorities across Scotland to provide more land for allotments.

The Scottish Gardens and Allotments Society has lobbied the Scottish Government to include updates on current legislation on allotments in its Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill, which is currently being considered.

Across the country there are currently 7,000 allotment plots, but the society estimates there are at least 14,000 people on waiting lists to get one. They also say there is likely to be a latent demand of people who would be interested in growing food on their own allotment if it was advertised to them.

At the end of the Second World War, when food supply across the country was a major issue, there was one allotment plot for every 100 of the population, but over time, many of these plots have been lost to housing developments, or were on ‘common good land’, like the Meadows in Edinburgh.

Secretary Peter Wright said that although plot sizes were far smaller than they had been in the past, cut back from an average of a quarter of an acre to around 250,000 sq m, there should still be enough space for a family of four to provide basic foodstuffs.

He said it was hoped that the new bill would provide more certainty and update the current acts, with some of the legislation dating back more than a century: “It was recognised that people needed food to grow in the 1892 act, that was at a time when over many years people were moving into cities and there was no land available.

“In the industrial areas, there were riots because people were finding food prices were too high and allotments were provided for the working poor to provide food.”

The society wants to see a model that is sustainable and self-sufficient, with allotment plot-holders paying for the maintenance and upkeep through the rent they pay.

He said: “It is well known that gardening as a hobby is very good for health and mental wellbeing. If it’s accompanied with food growing, it is very good for health, [it] reduced the number of people who are overweight, for example.
“People who live on allotments, we think, live much longer and have reduced health problems.”

Richard Lochhead said he wanted to ensure everybody in Scotland was able to enjoy its produce and said: “There is a lot of emphasis on working with community initiatives to help improve access to good, healthy, nutritious food for families in our communities. In my own constituency of Moray, we now have a local community food initiative providing the opportunity for families, some on low incomes to access fruit and veg and other produce.

“These grassroots are very important and through the Climate Challenge Fund and other funding streams, we have seen a number of new initiatives appearing in Scotland’s communities in recent years.

“However, I’m the first to admit there’s a long way to go and we have to ensure that the food debate in Scotland is not just about export figures or value-added economic stats, it is about ensuring local people are encouraged to enjoy more of their own larder, particularly healthier and fresher produce.

“If we do have what many people think are the healthiest oats in this country, the best soft fruit as well as our marvellous seafood, which is good for our health, then we have to do more to encourage people to enjoy that.”

Read the most recent article written by Neil Evans - Finding warmth: fuel poverty in Scotland

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