‘What is the main challenge facing your business currently?’
This was the question posed to a diverse range of business leaders at a recent series of Scotland Food & Drink leadership events. The answers were plentiful, indicating that the different sectors face a plethora of challenges including legislation, environmental issues and consumer demands.
With deliberate intent we tried to avoid the ‘B’ word to see what other priorities lay alongside this but, try as we might, it reared its head time and time again. There were plenty specific examples where revenue has been lost due to market insecurity, changes in demand, rising labour costs and a concern of stock control in fishing, but alongside this was a positive sentiment that the industry would adapt and grow.
Within the wider challenges, the biggest by some distance was packaging. The environmental demands to improve this, combined with huge consumer pressure and a global movement to reduce waste, has seen retailers often demanding changes over unrealistic time periods and with little consideration of the increased costs and production times. Everybody is keen to do more but it needs to be realistic. The proposal for a Deposit Return system is widely supported and understood yet seems rushed and illogical to implement at a different time to the rest of the UK, once again showing the need for joined up thinking, planning and dialogue.
The green agenda is on everybody’s mind but there needs to be more education around where the real dangers lie. The ‘meat is bad’ lobby is missing the fact that in Scotland nearly all red meat is raised on naturally grown grass, is sustainable and produces a very high quality of nutrition that the land could not create through other plant production methods. This is not an industry shovelling tons of grain into the animals to make cheap meat products.
There were some positive ideas that can be developed. A more coordinated effort across the industry, led by both Scotland Food & Drink and Government, could lead to improved infrastructure, transport and distribution. Logistics needs to be more efficient; labour costs need to be addressed, likely through increased automation; and more transparency introduced to follow the successful growth of traceability.
The industry is in good hands, growing strongly and there is an increasing interest in food production amongst consumers. This needs to be nurtured in a positive manner and not as a knee jerk response to scare campaigns. The environment is vital to food production so this industry, more than most, appreciates the need for sustainable management. Long may that continue.
Ben Walker is head of Food and Drink practice at Livingston James.