THE Scotland Food and Drink partnership is a unique collaboration between industry organisations, research institutes and the Scottish Government and its agencies, ensuring input, insight, and expertise from businesses and bodies across the country.

The sector – so vital to our economy and many thousands of jobs – is reeling from the impact of Brexit, Covid, and the cost of living crisis.

Add to that the growing understanding of the crucial part farmers and landowners have to play in tackling the climate emergency and reversing the collapse of biodiversity, and top it off with the very real issue of food security and the need to feed our nation.

The importance of the work being done cannot, in my view, be overstated.

Chief executive Iain Baxter is the hand at the helm of Scotland Food and Drink, appointed last October. The new policy Sustaining Scotland: Supplying the World sets out a clear ambition for this crucial sector.

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Baxter says: “The focus has to move away from being only on growth. We need to develop a new approach. It all starts with resilience and sustainability.

“There are some real success stories – it is not all doom and gloom. We will be providing information and support to businesses to help them identify and address their vulnerabilities and will work with the government to try to address the regulatory and labour issues businesses face.”

Baxter is very aware of the issues people are facing – and that our planet is too: “What’s really important with our new strategy is a delivery plan which will include a programme of net-zero delivery.

“We will be using the Food and Drink Federation of Scotland, which is working with specialists to deliver the training and expertise to help our members become more sustainable in ways which can be measured and monitored so they can deliver a meaningful outcome.”

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There are 17,495 enterprises registered as being connected to food and drink, according to the 2020 statistics. That’s 10% of all registered businesses in Scotland.

In 2021, the industry turnover was £16 billion. Exports of Scottish food and drink were valued at £8.1bn, of which a staggering £6.2bn were from Scotch whisky.

The sector is the third-largest employer, providing jobs for 129,000 people across agriculture, fishing, aquaculture and manufacturing. There is no secret to this success, it is built on years of dedication to delivering a quality product with a name people recognise and value at home and around the world.

“The global market loves Scotland’s brand,” Baxter says.

“Scottish provenance drives greater value for businesses and people. The closer you are to home, the stronger the power of Scotland’s brand becomes.”

The team has spent the last few months revamping its food and drink brand, which will be launched later this year. Baxter and I discussed the loss of clear place of origin labelling, one of the core concerns of the Keep Scotland the Brand campaign.

"Provenance to a domestic audience is crucial. It is very challenging to ensure our market represents Scotland’s brand,” he says.

“Our new campaign will be working to highlight Scotland’s brand both to the trade audience and to the consumer with what they see on the shelves.

“The power of Scottish provenance drives greater value for businesses and people.”

The recent Royal Highland Show saw a remarkable first for Scotland Food and Drink.

Every year, the organisation holds a showcase which presents a diverse range of businesses and products from across Scotland to punters and professionals alike.

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Buyers from prestigious markets around the world come to see what is on offer.

Baxter says with evident relish: “For the first time ever at the Royal Highland Show, we had a 100% success rate of indications of interest from buyers. We don’t have a demand-side problem – people want to buy Scotland’s products.”

After a grim few years for our food and drink sector, this is the kind of good news which brings hope to businesses fighting the damage done by Brexit, Covid, and spiralling costs.

I have one final question for Baxter. In the section of the report looking at Unlocking Our Potential: Eight Enablers for Growth, infrastructure is highlighted.

That doesn’t just include direct essentials the industry is crying out for, such as abattoirs, but transport, housing, and broadband too.

These are the kind of crucial issues I would expect to see raised by a body such as Scottish Rural Action and I am pleased, if surprised, to see the Scottish Food and Drink Partnership include them in its strategy.

“One of the things I am keen we do is have a broad range of conversations across government departments,” Baxter says. “We need to have these conversations. We hear the issues our producers are raising. Food and drink has a voice at the table, so we make sure those concerns are raised when we speak to government.”

It is encouraging to see the commitment to communities, to business, to provenance in this strategy. Scotland’s reputation is the key to much wider success.

Ruth Watson is the founder of the Keep Scotland the Brand campaign