Scotland's largest industry sector is tackling the twin challenges of a pandemic and its carbon footprint with innovation and ambition. By Karen Peattie

FOOD and drink – we take it for granted as something that is always there, something that fuels the nation, something that is readily available in the supermarkets. We often talk, with pride, about the Scotland’s rich and bountiful larder, the wonderful, nutritious produce that comes from our land and seas.

Yet do we always think about how it is produced, its provenance, and how it reaches our plates? Are we doing enough to support Scotland’s hardworking food producers and artisans – the farmers and fishermen, the cheesemakers, the fruit growers, the craft brewers, whisky and gin makers? The list is endless and the answer is: yes, we are supporting them but we can and should be doing more.

Scotland’s food and drink industry, worth £15 billion, is the nation’s largest manufacturing sector. That’s why Earth Overshoot Day presents the ideal opportunity to continue the debate. This year, it lands on August 22, and it’s the day when humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what planet Earth can regenerate in that period.

The coronavirus pandemic has, of course, stopped us in our tracks and denied those who enjoy strolling around a farmers’ market or visiting a farm shop the opportunity to “buy local” and support artisan producers. But convenience stores in towns, villages and cities across Scotland have stepped into the breach, many increasing the amount of homegrown produce on their shelves and bringing in new and innovative Scottish-produced lines.

Industry organisation Scotland Food & Drink, realising that consumers were rediscovering the benefits of shopping locally in independent convenience stores, butchers and bakers, responded to this shift by launching an online directory to help people access their favourite brands and discover new ones.

Since launching supportlocal.scot in May, thousands of food lovers have used the one-stop shop to purchase everything from beer and cheese to fish and chocolate, supporting suppliers and producers the length and breadth of Scotland.

While it’s unfair to say there’s been a backlash against the supermarkets, there has clearly been an uplift in support for the local shop during lockdown. In recent weeks, a new national campaign – Scotland Loves Local – has been launched to encourage all those who live in Scotland to think local first and support their local town centres and high streets safely, in line with public health guidelines.

Scotland’s band of a butchers, for example, has worked throughout the pandemic, providing consumers with fresh, high-quality meat and, crucially, supporting local farmers. It is encouraging, therefore, that new research has revealed Scots’ love of local produce grew during lockdown, with over three-quarters (79%) of respondents agreeing that it is important to continue to support local suppliers as restrictions ease.

Carried out by Censuswide on behalf of Scotch Lamb PGI, the research also highlighted that nearly two-thirds (60%) of people in Scotland intend to buy more from local suppliers as the nation emerges from lockdown, with over one-third (36%) increasing their consumption from local suppliers since lockdown began.

According to the research, released at the end of July, the pandemic has also made Scottish consumers more switched on as to where their food is coming from, with 62% of those surveyed agreeing they are more conscious of the traceability of their food.

The research coincides with industry body Quality Meat Scotland’s “Make It Scotch Lamb” campaign, which aims to share the positive health, nutrition and sustainability messages surrounding one of Scotland’s most prized products.

HeraldScotland:

Sophie Cumber, above, moved up from London to open her butchery business. She is relishing working with local farmers in the East Neuk of Fife

Lesley Cameron, director of marketing and communications at Quality Meat Scotland, said: “The past few months have seen many members of the red meat supply chain – from farmers and butchers, to auctioneers and processors – pivot their operations to meet new, and different, demand, and many consumers have relied heavily on local suppliers.

“As the nation moves into its recovery period, this momentum must continue and we’d urge shoppers to look for the Scotch Lamb PGI label when next visiting a supermarket or butchers. This will directly support a Scottish farm and the wider supply chain while also providing reassurance that the lamb takes its quality and characteristics from a natural life grazing on the Scottish hills.”

Scotland’s aquaculture sector, meanwhile, has been building its sustainability and environmental credentials over many years.

It’s a key employer too, with the country’s major salmon producers directly employing over 2,300 people, about 1,500 of them in remote areas where they form the mainstay of local communities.

According to Scottish Government statistics, the contribution of the entire aquaculture supply chain to the Scottish economy is in the region of £1.8 billion per year. Scottish salmon is the largest component of the industry with approximately 170,000 tonnes produced on farms each year.

As Scotland eases out of lockdown and people start to venture a little further from home there’s an interesting initiative in Fife that ticks all the boxes when it comes to sustainability and connecting people with local producers.

Bowhouse, a food and drink collective based on the Balcaskie Estate between St Monans and Elie in the East Neuk, opened as a makers’ hub for local food and drink producers in July 2017, its aim to provide the “missing link between field and fork for producer and consumer”.

During lockdown, the Bowhouse team created the Bowhouse Link as a weekly online “alternative” market on the Open Food Network to connect people with local food and drink producers based both at Bowhouse and across the region.  

Sophie Cumber, who moved north from London to open Bowhouse the Butchery, said: “It’s been a pleasure to go back to my roots and work so closely with farmers again. This proximity to the source is one of the reasons I made the move to Bowhouse. Working so directly with those rearing the animals is really important.”

Elsewhere, Diageo, maker of Johnnie Walker, the world’s number one Scotch whisky brand, revealed that it has created “the world’s first-ever 100% plastic-free paper-based spirits bottle, made entirely from sustainably sourced wood”. The bottle will make its debut in early 2021.

Across Scotland, there are countless examples for food and drink businesses – big and small – blazing a trail when it comes to environmental initiatives and taking significant and often groundbreaking steps on their quest to become more sustainable.

Bridge of Allan-based Graham’s The Family Dairy recently submitted plans to Fife Council a low-carbon heat project for its cheese production in Cowdenbeath. The proposed plant is set to generate and distribute bioenergy for onsite heat and power in what Graham’s says is a first for Scotland’s dairy industry and an initiative that will position Fife at the forefront of innovative decarbonisation solutions for the food and drink sector.

In Aberdeenshire, dairy firm Mackie’s produces green energy from its own solar farm while in Angus, farm-based distiller Arbikie’s new gin, Nàdar, is hailed as the world’s “first climate-positive gin” with a negative carbon footprint of 1.54kg of Co2 per 700ml bottle.

Scotland’s food and drink industry doesn’t lack innovation or ambition. Let’s use Earth Overshoot Day to shine the spotlight on it, and press home the need to reduce food miles, waste less food and focus as much possible on the benefits of taking a local approach.