By Professor Wayne Powell

A NEW piece of legislation, passed in June to establish in law the Scottish Government’s commitment to Scotland being a Good Food Nation, has been timely. So too was the UK Government’s new Food Strategy, published just before a summer that is seeing record-breaking high temperatures pose big questions about domestic food sustainability, security and affordability in the face of a warming climate.

As the Ukraine conflict, rising energy costs and the legacy of the pandemic place significant near-term pressures on supply chains, the climate and biodiversity crises also loom large, challenging producers’ longer-term capacity to provide food sustainably and affordably.

Unprecedented heatwaves, not just here in the UK but also globally, from Europe to the US, are a reminder that their impact on businesses and consumers alike may be growing faster than many thought was possible just a few years ago.

This makes the need for food producers to have access to new, innovative tools to feed populations sustainably a here-and-now problem of profound urgency for government, universities, research institutes and businesses.

A daunting challenge, without doubt, but also an opportunity here in Scotland, if we have the shared vision and will to grasp it.

Whether we can step up as required, and do so fully in the next few years, will determine the degree to which our institutions and enterprises become global leaders in the provision of agri-food innovation that delivers solutions – or merely also-rans.

Scotland already does well when it comes to driving cutting edge innovations to our domestic markets that can be exported around the world. This success is firmly grounded in the capacity of researchers and enterprises to collaborate on practical projects like the SRUC-led GreenShed Project, which has just received nearly £3 million from the UK Government to develop a state-of-the-art shed that converts methane emissions from cattle into energy to grow crops.

It is technology like this, which can potentially remove the equivalent of 600 tonnes of carbon dioxide per farm per year, while also generating an annual additional income stream of up to £40,000 for farmers, that shows the true potential of innovation in food production. If it wasn’t for the capacity of higher education institutions (HEIs) like SRUC to work closely with businesses in the agricultural sector, GreenShed and projects like it such as vertical farms and data-based dairy solutions, would flounder.

The challenge we have now is to multiply and accelerate such joint initiatives by emulating approaches common in the most productive agri-food economies like the Netherlands and Norway. These put HEI-led partnerships firmly at the heart of a shared economic growth agenda, that in an era of public spending restraint, creates an opportunity for government to generate considerable returns on any investment put in.

This is a win-win for all involved. The prizes on offer – greater food security as well as step changes in productivity growth and wealth creation – will stand our entire natural economy in good stead for an uncertain future.

Professor Wayne Powell is Principal & Chief Executive, Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC)