FIRST Minister Nicola Sturgeon has issued a clarion call for the defence and promotion of Scotland’s brands as we approach a hard Brexit that could damage the Scottish reputation for quality produce.

The recent trend of Saltires being replaced with Union Jacks on food packaging has been highlighted by The National’s Save our Scotland Brand and the Keep Scotland the Brand campaign founded by Ruth Watson.

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In an extensive interview with The National’s sister publication The Scottish Farmer – which is out today – Nicola Sturgeon said: “Unfortunately, the debate around the Scottish flag and Union Jack can become loaded with political debate in Scotland and that is to be regretted.

“I think whatever your views on the constitutional future of Scotland, we should all agree on the importance of the Scottish brand and the Saltire in terms of properly promoting our produce overseas and at home. There is lots of evidence that says a significant proportion of people in Scotland would choose to buy Scottish if they had the correct information and the awareness of that.”

The First Minister said food and drink producers should share in Scotland the Brand’s success story.

She said: “The Food and Drink Strategy 2030 is something the Scottish Government is investing in and part of that is how we better promote our produce at home and internationally.

“Separately, when I have been speaking to farmers, one of the issues we need to address is what often seems as a disconnect between the success of our food and drinks industry and the struggles of our primary producers.

“There are lots of issues, not least the role of supermarkets with talks of mergers, and that becomes more of a concern. We need to capitalise more on the fantastic food and drink we produce but make sure that the producers share in the rewards of its success.”

The Scottish Government will do everything in it power to protect Scottish agriculture and the rural economy in general, the First Minister declared.

She said: “Our agricultural industry is so important to our country overall. It is vital that as a government we do everything we can to stand up for it, protect it, and we will always do that.”

“The role of the rural economy is hugely important to our economy and the prosperity of Scotland overall – it makes almost 30% of a contribution in financial terms, in the region of £30 billion. However, that is looking at it in terms of statistics. I think it is very hard to overestimate the importance of agriculture and horticulture in the rural economy to our very sense of who we are as a country. Scotland’s most successful sectors, food and drink, and tourism, attribute their success hugely to the rural economy and it is very much embedded in our identity as a country.”

She believes Brexit is already causing damage. She said:“Firstly, before Brexit happens we are already seeing an impact with labour shortages and we need to continue to go out of our way to promote Scotland as a place that wants people to come and work and to show we are a welcoming place. The Scottish Government is putting a lot of effort into getting that message out there.”