HISTORY and climate have bestowed Scotland with a reputation as one of the world’s best producers of oats.

It’s why one could be forgiven for thinking that the increasing popularity of oat milk should be a boon to Scottish business. After all, we’re hardly in want of the two main ingredients: oats and water.

The global oat milk market is currently worth around £2 billion. By 2030, it’s expected to more than double.

Yet, despite Scotland’s historical pedigree in farming oats, Scottish brands are not the main players in this market.

Indeed, Scots are far more likely to be buying oat milk sourced from crops in Sweden and produced in a factory in England.

When it comes to the wider array of plant milks available on supermarket shelves, some products are coming from as far away as California.

It begs the question: Why, in a country known for producing oats and increasingly committed to sustainability, aren’t we consuming – and capitalising on – our own bountiful supply?

'The best oats in the world'

Josh Barton is the co-founder of Brose - the only oat milk brand entirely produced within Scotland using locally grown oats.

“I grew up in a really small town in America called Cornish in Maine,” he told the Sunday National.

“I remember being five years old and seeing a box of Scott’s Porage Oats in my parent’s cupboard.

“As an American, that’s one of the few things I knew about Scotland - it was the Loch Ness monster, whisky, and oats.”

The company got off the ground in 2017. The farmers upon whose land Barton rents a cottage in East Lothian asked him whether he’d be interested in helping them start an oat milk company.

The National: Brose source their oats and produce oat milk entirely within ScotlandBrose source their oats and produce oat milk entirely within Scotland (Image: Brose Oats)

Now, Brose supplies oat milk to one of the UK’s biggest catering companies, The Balmoral Hotel, and dozens of coffee shops and cafes.

Yet, other than a few select locations, it isn’t available in supermarkets – where the majority of oat milk purchases are made.

“It is baffling that Scots aren’t drinking Scottish oat milk, given the provenance and history,” said Barton.

“But what people tend not to realise is that the majority of the oat milk being produced in the UK is coming from the same facility and using ingredients sourced from the same place - a factory in England run by a company called Framptons.

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“So, brands like Minor Figures aren’t producing in-house. There’s nothing wrong with that. We looked at outsourcing production ourselves.

“However, when you do that, you lose control over the supply chain. They’ll be sourcing their oats from wherever it’s cheapest across Europe.

“But in Scotland, we really do have the best oats in the world. Our climate is ideally suited to growing them. So, for us, it’s about believing in the worth of that.”

The problem of production

The other big player in Scotland’s oat milk market is Three Robins – a fortified oat milk marketed towards families.

While Brose makes “fresh” refrigerated oat milk, Three Robins products are shelf-stable and come in cartons rather than glass bottles.

The company’s founder, Karen Robinson - who named the company in honour of her three young children - said that as a first-time businessowner, she simply didn’t have the funds to set up production in Scotland.

“It was disappointing not to be able to do everything in Scotland,” she said.

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“But, for the product we’re making and packaging, it would require millions of pounds to set up that kind of facility.

“It’s frustrating, too, because I think the appetite is there. The market is still growing, and oat milk is such a great base for other things like ice cream and yoghurt.

“Buying locally where possible is important to the viability of our food systems going forward so I think a production facility used by numerous Scottish brands could really work. All that’s required is the investment.”

The trouble with Oatly

The biggest name in the oat milk market is the Swedish brand Oatly.

However, despite plastering commitments to sustainability on every carton, the company’s ownership model has led some environmentalists to boycott their products.

Oatly is part-owned by the Blackstone Group – an investment firm which has faced criticism for its alleged links to deforestation in the Amazon rainforest.

The group’s CEO, Stephen Schwarzman, also made multi-million-dollar donations to Donald Trump’s re-election campaign in 2020.

Furthermore, a Chinese state-owned conglomerate holds considerable shares in the company as part of a joint venture with a Belgian firm.

It speaks to the dilemma facing many small businesses, who seek to maintain ethical positions while also seeking investment to grow their company.

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“A bucolic view of everyone returning to the land and eating locally sourced food without considerable investment just isn’t realistic,” said Peter Alexander, a senior lecturer in agriculture and food systems at the University of Edinburgh.

“We have to engage with these big financial institutions. We just have to make sure that their actions are aligned with what we want as a society and aren’t just about perverse incentives for the institutions themselves.

“It highlights the important role of regulation.”

According to Alexander, concerns about food miles and eating locally sourced produce aren’t going to make a huge difference when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Rather, it is diversity of supply that matters when thinking about our food security.

He added: “However, what’s more beneficial about these conversations is that people are taking an interest in where their food comes from and the ethical issues behind it. That can only be a good thing”.

A future for Scottish oat milk

Both Brose and Three Robins have plans to grow and get their products inside supermarkets – a feat that perhaps feels a little too difficult in a country replete with the raw materials to create oat milk.

However, according to Barton, the future is bright.

He added: “There’s way more awareness and interest in where our food comes from and how it’s produced, particularly among young people – which is also the age group most interested in plant-based products.

“That’s why we’re determined to keep making a product that Scotland can be proud of, that’s helping farmers and that’s sustainable.”

With the best oats in the world at their disposal, the end of Oatly’s dominance could well be on the horizon.