SCOTLAND Food & Drink has launched its annual celebration of the sector, Scottish Food & Drink Fortnight, which this year will celebrate Scotland’s “Stories to Savour”.

Food and drink is one of the largest industry sectors in Scotland, with a £15 billion turnover (an increase of 36% since 2007) and employing 119,000 people, nearly 5% of employment in Scotland. Iain Stirling is the co-owner of Arbikie Distillery, which has a breathtaking perspective across Lunan Bay and the famous Red Castle, battered by centuries of North Sea storms. Iain comes from a family which has been a part of the community for 400 years. Their determination to grow sustainably is impressive.

“Using only ingredients grown on our farms gives us our field-to-bottle ethos and by harnessing our creativity and collaborating with academia, we have created the world’s first climate-positive gin and vodka,” Iain says, proud of the work they are doing to integrate environmentalism into their processes.

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“We’re innovating for the future as well as learning from the past. It’s really important we do that as sustainably as possible. We export internationally because we live in a global world, but a shorter supply chain is more reliable. It cuts carbon miles. No business can ignore the climate emergency.

“Companies around the world are looking for environmentally friendly products because that is what consumers expect. Look at the flooding in Pakistan, the forest fires and droughts across Europe. People realise we can’t wait to take action. Scottish Food & Drink Fortnight provides us with a great opportunity to tell our sustainable story and celebrate Scottish provenance and we are delighted to get involved once again this year.”

Scotland Food & Drink, led by the energetic and inspirational James Withers for the last 11 years, has a new hand at the helm: Iain Baxter, a former senior executive in the whisky industry, has been announced as the new Chief Executive. He takes over just as the impact of the cost-of-living crisis risks hurling businesses into the maelstrom. While enterprises with a strong export market, like Arbikie Distillery, are well-placed to weather the storm, many hospitality outlets serving predominantly local markets are in real trouble: Brexit has hit their ability to recruit enough staff, the cost of food is spiralling, and soaring energy bills could see mass closures of businesses across the country.

Sarah Heward founded “The Real Food Café” in Tyndrum, a lovely wee spot on an unassuming but important intersection between the west and east of Scotland, a welcome pit-stop for wayfarers and a beautiful destination in its own right. Open from early until late, they provide delicious, hearty meals with amazing views. Sarah is Scotland Food & Drink’s Regional Food Tourism Ambassador for the area.

“Staffing is a nightmare, there just aren’t the staff to keep hospitality outlets open. We haven’t been able to open key parts of our business even though we are so busy – and one of the reasons we are so busy is because so many other places now are closed. Brexit has been a disaster. It is not the only problem, but it underpins every aspect of the issues we are facing,” she says.

“Food costs are rocketing, the price of fish has gone up 50%, rapeseed oil is up 115%, and our monthly electricity bill has gone up from £2300 to £5900. Our overheads keep going up and our ability to make enough profits to develop our business is being cut.”

Fish and chip shops, once a place where folk could pop out for an affordable family treat, are one example of a sector being hit hard. Sarah is part of a social media group with over 3500 chip shops represented. The stories people are sharing are grim, she says.

“It is heartbreaking. People face losing their livelihoods, their homes. These are businesses which often employ whole families, give youngsters in an area their first start at work. If they close, it’s not just jobs that go, it’s like a beating heart gets torn out of a community.”

In 2020, the equivalent of 97.4% of Scotland’s gross electricity consumption was from renewable sources. Many of the island and rural businesses being hit the hardest by escalating fuel bills are in the same areas as the windfarms which keep the lights on across the whole of the UK. While there is much to savour in Scotland’s food and drink success, the clamour of despair and the threat to the sector as businesses face skyrocketing energy bills cannot be ignored. Scotland has the power. Perhaps it is time we used it.

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