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The food chain: Q&A with Fergus Ewing

Holyrood

The food chain: Q&A with Fergus Ewing

COVID and Brexit have been a double whammy for Scotland’s food and drink industry. Will it survive?

Yes. There is no doubt the COVID-19 pandemic and Brexit taken together represent the biggest challenge and threat to our food and drink sector for a generation. But we have been there to offer support to the food and drink industry, retailers and the food-to-go sector. We’ve worked closely with retailers, the wholesale sector and manufacturers to ensure equity of food provision across Scotland, and especially for our remote and island communities.

The Scottish Government has set up funds to support businesses through this difficult period. Some businesses have been able to get support through Scottish Government funds such as the pivotal enterprise resilience fund and the creative, tourism and hospitality fund. Sector specific funds were also set up, with the Scottish seafood business resilience fund closing with 128 applications being processed successfully to a value of over £5m. The payment process is underway for the Scottish wholesale food and drink resilience fund, which has supported 40 eligible applicants with total eligible costs value of £5.4m. This is just a snapshot of what we have provided.

We engage with the industry on a daily basis in order to understand what the impacts have been and to try to mitigate them. We hold regular teleconferences and bespoke engagement takes place to brief and provide advance notice of any changes and detail on implications of protection levels approaches, as well as flagging up areas of concern or potential implications. 

The regular meetings of the Food Sector Resilience Group allow us to hear first-hand about any issues that the industry are coming up against and what is needed to combat them.

We have also been working with the key trade bodies across the food and drink sector to develop a COVID-19 recovery plan, which the Scottish Government have committed £5m this financial year in support. The recovery plan will allow for more resilience to be built into the sector, as well as representing an opportunity for renewal.

But the key reason this industry will survive is because of the people who are in it, their creativity, innovation and can-do attitudes.  They are problem solvers and solution finders who are resolutely optimistic about the opportunities and potential available to them – it is why they have made a success of their businesses and sectors so far and why I know, with our help in the background, they will recover and emerge even stronger.

What did you make of the admission by the fisheries minister, Victoria Prentis, that she was too busy with a local nativity trail to have properly read the final details of the Brexit deal for fishing?

I thought it demonstrated a fairly astonishing lack of self-awareness about how such a comment might be perceived, not least because of the struggles that many seafood and fishing businesses have been having since Brexit, precisely because of the very thin, poor deal that was reached on Christmas Eve. 

How do you feel seeing Scottish fishermen talking about their catches going to waste because of delays caused by Brexit?

Appalled. Fishermen should never have been in this position and it’s really disappointing to see them have to deal with all the issues that have only arisen because of Brexit. We called on the UK Government to provide compensation and while the £23m announced can be seen as a victory for keeping the pressure on, it is merely a sticking plaster. It provides short-term relief for only a few and the conditions attached will mean few qualify.

More fundamentally, we warned that there would be all this bureaucracy, and friction would result if we left the single market. We were ignored, as was the industry when it called for a six month grace period, but the UK Government simply refused to put the needs of businesses first.

Do you think Brexit will change the country’s eating habits in terms of buying and selling more food locally?

I hope so. The pandemic has really brought about a reawakening of interest in local food. Many food and drink producers, wholesalers and food service companies had their traditional route to market shut down due to COVID-19 restrictions – we are now seeing that through Brexit too.  We have worked with retailers to encourage and enhance Scottish sourcing, with all offering up a firm commitment to continue to do so.  In addition, Scotland Food & Drink, with Scottish Government support, at the height of the pandemic developed an online directory to help connect companies with consumers throughout Scotland. The directory has gone from strength to strength and now over 400 businesses signed up with thousands of visits to websites from the public.

There are few positives to come out of the last 12 months, but one really has been seeing families and individuals sharing their cooking and baking exploits with friends and family online. That interest in food generally is a good thing and we need to keep working together to encourage more people to try more of Scotland’s great produce and to buy more locally sourced and produced food and for more food retailers to stock it.  We have an amazing natural larder and it is great that more people are now discovering that.

What is the biggest USP for Scotland’s food and drink industry going forward?

That it is sustainable and Scottish.

Scotland is home to much of the world’s greatest produce and we must do all we can to protect and promote it. So much work goes into creating and growing the high quality produce that Scotland is known for. This is evident in the talent and ambition of producers that help our food and drink sector to thrive, not just in gin and whisky production, but also in areas like lamb, beef and seafood.

The future of food production will change as we consider ways to tackle climate change. It’s important that the change is considered at farmer level and we committed to establishing farmer-led groups to consider ways to tackle climate change, cut emissions and make key sectors in Scottish farming more sustainable. The groups are looking at ways to improve the sustainability of the dairy, the arable and the suckler beef sectors. It’s clear that these groups are going to help government change farming and food production for the better. We now need to drive forward this work at pace and move forward to a more sustainable future.

I am also keen to explore how we can involve our chefs, restaurants, hotels and cafes more in Scotland’s food story.  They have had a torrid year and we must do what we can to help them all bounce back but in a way that helps us too to develop our USP and our reputation still further – it is a pretty obvious, virtuous circle and I want to see us do more to enable and promote it.  

What can ordinary Scots do to help out the food and drink industry during these difficult times?

Do all they can, and all that they can afford to do, to support locally grown, produced and sourced produce.

Consumers are increasingly looking for new ways to buy food and drink as well as to support local companies. Obviously most of the country is in tier four at the moment, where people are limited by where they can go and what they can do. Businesses are also limited in what they can do. Food and drink businesses have shown remarkable resilience and innovation in responding to the pandemic, from finding new routes to market themselves or in the actions they have taken to support their workforce and keep food on our tables, including expanding their services and offerings to provide takeaways or creating and improving their online offerings. They can do this by taking a bit of time to seek out local produce from their local shop or supermarket. They can also seek out online Scottish businesses selling Scottish produce for delivery, also helping to maintain the lockdown restrictions by staying at home. There is so much to choose from and people can take satisfaction in knowing that they are helping to support Scottish jobs, livelihoods and businesses in their communities and elsewhere in the country.

What do you miss most about eating out?

Like most people, I miss the conviviality of eating out with family and friends, of the sense of a treat as well as the opportunity to come together and enjoy good craic and company. 

Lots of people have talked about how they have started cooking or baking during lockdown. Have you discovered any new skills in the kitchen?

I think my greatest skill has been to support my daughter’s burgeoning talents in this department by enthusiastically watching and helping her endeavours and of course, making sure to taste everything she produces and enjoy every morsel that is created – and pretend to do so when it does not quite match the billing!  More seriously, it has been a great way of spending time together and I hope other families have found the same – there is no doubt these restrictions are hard going, but we must all stick with it.  And every little bit we can do to find shared moments will help us all get through it. Food is a great way of achieving that.

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