James Withers: Innovation is hugely important for the food and drink sector

James Withers, chief executive at Scotland Food & Drink, discusses the reasons why innovation is vital to the continued success of Scotland's high flying food and drink sector.

Published 2nd Sep 2016
Updated 2 nd Sep 2016

There are so many statistics flying about which point to success in Scottish food and drink. Since 2007, our exports have risen over 50 per cent with sales of Scottish brands in the UK up by over 35 per cent.

Last year, the industry passed the £14bn mark in annual turnover for the first time. However, there is one statistic that stands out for me: food and drink manufacturing in Scotland is currently growing at twice the rate of the UK average for the sector. So, something different is happening in Scotland.

I think that is down to a unique level of collaboration between industry and with government. The Scotland Food & Drink partnership has brought these groups together, united behind a common objective to grow the value and reputation of Scottish food and drink.

I believe we have always had the ingredients for success, but now we are properly harnessing them and, in so doing, building a global identify for our produce.

Yet, one element will be particularly critical if we are to achieve the full potential of our food and drink sector; innovation. Scotland has a long heritage of innovation, arguably greater than any other nation on Earth.

From the telephone and bicycle to penicillin and radar, innovation has forged our future. And it will be central to our food and drink future too.

Our industry strategy identifies innovate as a priority. We have a shared ambition to nurture a culture of innovation and development. We need to use the best market intelligence to identify opportunities.

If our future customer is health-conscious, likely to buy online rather than go shopping and wants a meal ready in 15 minutes rather than the current average of 30 mins, how do we innovate to meet that demand?

We’ll need new products, processes, skills and tools. We’ll need to work with academics and researchers, nutritionists and engineers.

The exciting news is that there is already growing investment in innovation across Scotland and in food and drink. Companies have doubled their level of research and development investment in the last few years.

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But we need to make the landscape simpler, to make it easier for companies to find the right support. A strong relationship between major public sector investments and the industry is the foundation to make this happen. So stayed tuned for the launch of a new approach before the end of this year.

It is important for us to remember what has underpinned success to date: collaboration, ambition and innovation. Building on that will cement Scotland’s reputation as a Land of Food and Drink and take our growth to the next level.

• James Withers is chief executive at Scotland Food & Drink, you can follow him on Twitter -  @scotfoodjames

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