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Uniquely Scottish: the highs and lows of a booming food and drink industry

Image credit: Buck and Birch

Uniquely Scottish: the highs and lows of a booming food and drink industry

It started off in a pub, actually,” recalls Tom Chisholm, founder of East Lothian-based food and drink company Buck and Birch.

“Rupert brought some dandelion capers in a jar, I tried it and it blew my mind.

“So now, to be sitting here and saying, we’re exporting to two regions, soon to be three, we’ve grown our sales massively over the last three years, we’ve got three products, a new venue with a lot of people wanting to collaborate with us – and that all started from his shed, in his garden.”

Holyrood meets Chisholm and co-founder Rupert Waites inside an industrial warehouse in Macmerry. A shelf at the back is stocked full of glass jars containing bark, berries, sap, flowers and mushrooms, all foraged from nearby woodlands.

Buck and Birch launched eight years ago, when Chisholm and Waites decided to hold a pop-up restaurant event celebrating their “version” of Scottish cuisine – foraged produce from surrounding woodlands and coastlines. The pair met when they were working in the same Edinburgh restaurant and bonded over their upbringings in the wild – Waites in the Highlands and Chisholm in Norway.

In 2016, Chisholm and Waites launched Aelder, a whisky-based liqueur made with wild elderberries foraged from around East Lothian. They’ve since released another, rosehip rum liqueur, Amarosa, and are about to launch a third, a dessert drink made from birch sap.

By telling the unique story behind the wild fruit liqueurs and harnessing “brand Scotland”, the co-founders have opened export markets in Holland, Singapore and Malaysia. Domestically, their elixirs are being used in bars and restaurants across the UK - you may have seen their stall at Edinburgh’s Christmas market. Soon the entrepreneurs will be organising foraging trips, to help better connect people to the resources that grow wild in Scotland.

“The overwhelming vision of Scotland is natural, clean air, rugged, wild, misty mountain tops, playing a wizard, tartan, shortbread, haggis scuttling about,” Waites explains,

“we’re selling a slice of contemporary Scotland, which I think had been missed entirely.”

Scotland Food and Drink chief executive James Withers tells Holyrood that Scotland’s “unique” food and drink producers are what sets it apart from most other countries.

“For a small country, we’ve got a really diverse larder, which means we can attract customers right across different categories,” he says. “The one thing [that] has started to set Scotland apart, certainly across other parts of the UK and beyond, is the strength of reputation, the strength of brand.”

The food and drink industry is worth £15bn to the Scottish economy and the sector has a joint-target with the Scottish Government to double that by 2030, a rise of five per cent per year.

By all accounts, the industry is booming. Since 2007, food and drink has increased by 78 per cent, with food exports growing by 125 per cent in that time. In 2018, food and drink exports from Scotland reached a record high of £6.3bn, and in the first half of last year, overseas food and drink exports increased by 11 per cent to another record high of £3bn.

However, about two-thirds of food exports go to the European Union, and on 31 January the UK left the EU and entered an 11-month transition period. After a chaotic few years and a rollercoaster 12 months, with the industry dealing with the threat of numerous potential no deals and several Brexit deadlines, the UK Government has until 31 December to come up with a trade plan.

Withers says uncertainty around future trade outside the UK is “as stark now, as it has been at any time in the last three and a half years”. He says the industry wants “frictionless trade”, the ability to trade with Europe without tariffs or other regulations.

“That means the UK Government will have to sacrifice on the principle of aligning standards and rules. The price of being able to make our own rules, whilst it might make us feel more in control of our own destiny, in reality, will come at the price of closing down doors into that EU market and it’s not a price worth paying.”

Food and Drink Federation Scotland chief executive David Thomson tells Holyrood that tariffs on food, drink and agriculture could go “incredibly high… in terms of some meat and some dairy product, maybe 50 per cent or maybe 100 per cent tariffs”.

“That just kills any chance you have to sell there, dead. Those are the bits that businesses will need to be ready and prepared for and, of course, we can’t really tell what’s going to happen there until we know the nature of the final deal with Europe,” Thomson says, adding, “the key thing is, as much certainty as possible.”

For Withers, any trade deal needs to get “as close as possible to working in the single market” but he admits that is a “real long shot given the timeframe”. He adds: “We need to have a deal thrashed out by the summer, in order to make a decision on whether we need a longer transition period.”

While he acknowledges there are opportunities in the home market, and says the industry is growing “at a faster pace in the Far East, North American and Middle East”, it will take “a generation to build up these markets”. “The risk of short-term disruption into the EU is a real challenge, and that is linked to concerns about our future workforce,” Withers says.

On the workforce, he says there are 46,000 jobs that need filling in the industry between now and 2030. Unless those jobs are filled, he fears the sector’s growth ambition won’t be realised.

“We are short of a few things in Scotland, and one of them is people,” he says.

“The future immigration policy, as well as the industry investing in its people, is going to be crucial to us achieving the ambition that we’ve got.”

Withers says one of the industries booming in Scotland is health and wellness, but he also acknowledges the irony there. “There’s always been this slight paradox where Scotland is still tackling its own diet-related health issues, whilst at the same time, actually having an incredibly naturally healthy larder. I think there’s more innovation that Scotland needs to do around that, in providing that healthy food offering, but we’ve got a brilliant foundation to build from.”

People in Scotland are overeating. Two-thirds of adults are overweight and 28 per cent are obese – higher than the rest of the UK.

Scots are also undereating. The number of emergency parcels handed out by food banks in Scotland jumped by nearly one quarter between 2018 and 2019.

Nine per cent of adults in Scotland are worried they will run out of food due to lack of money or other resources. That figure doubles when the adult is a single parent, aged under 65 and living alone, has a long-term health condition, or is living in a low-income household.

The Scottish Government’s answer to some of these issues has been the Good Food Nation policy, but six years after it was announced, a bill is yet to be brought before the Scottish Parliament.

The Scottish Food Coalition, a group of 30 organisations fighting for food justice, is expecting the bill to be put forward “in the next few months”, but there are fears it could be longer.

One of the coalition’s members, the Health and Social Care Alliance, is worried the bill will be put on the backburner again.

“The concern of the coalition is that the Scottish Parliament could get overtaken by dealing with the impact of Brexit, this will go on the down-low again and will be pushed into the next year and the ability to do something before the election will become quite difficult,” Alliance assistant director Andrew Strong tells Holyrood.

Nourish Scotland, another coalition member, admits the long road towards legislation has been trying.

“It has been quite frustrating to be in positions where there seems to be quite strong government commitment, but then there’s a shift in the winds, and it seems to be dropping lower and lower down the agenda,” Nourish policy and campaigns officer Stephanie Mander tells Holyrood.

The coalition is calling for the bill to include plans for the right to food to be enshrined in Scots law, for a statutory food commission to be created, as well as “cross-cutting national food plans” with duties on public bodies to meet certain targets.

Mander says specific targets include that all food and drink sector workers are paid “at least” the real living wage by 2025, and by 2030 halving the environmental impact of the food system, halving household food insecurity and halving childhood obesity.

The right to food is protected under international human rights and states that people should be able to feed themselves in dignity, enough food should be available and accessible, and food should adequately meet dietary needs.

According to Mander, having the right put into law “establishes the principles for a food system”, including that everyone has access to high-quality food and that the way food is produced is fair to people, animals and the environment.

However, it is expected the bill will fall short of these demands. The coalition fears the bill’s focus has become more about protecting the industry than protecting vulnerable people and the environment, and that the right to food is not likely to be enshrined in law.

“We want the right to food to be on the face of this legislation, but our conversations with government suggest that they’re not keen to do that on the good food nation bill,” Strong says. “They are saying they won’t do it in this bill because they’re saving it for a bill to come about socio-economic rights, which would be a more general thing to incorporate all social economic rights, with the right to food being one of those. I don’t necessarily trust that.”

Additionally, Strong wants to ensure the connection between access to food and long-term illness is better recognised. Three-quarters of food bank users reported health issues affecting someone in their households, with poor mental health affecting half, and one quarter affected by a long-term physical condition or illness.

“It’s not always possible for people to take their medication with food because they have insecure access to food, and that’s leading to other health problems,” Strong says.

“The consequence of not getting secure access to food is that people are forced into making a number of different trade-offs and compromises. We’ve heard before, people making a choice between heating or eating… and some of the new research that’s coming out is suggesting, in people with long-term conditions, that trade-off includes their medication as well.”

Unsurprisingly, food and drink bodies are against the bill containing more red tape for the industry.

Withers says he’s “worried about some of the direction of travel”. “The danger is that lazy regulation will miss the target as aimed for and have a load of unintended consequences,” he says.

Thomson says: “There’s more to be gained by having a constant dialogue and supporting each other to change, rather than just through the blunt tool of legislation.” 

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