Scotland’s food and drink sector is still digesting a Brexit decision most simply didn’t expect. Before the vote, the majority of businesses were clear a vote to stay was in the industry’s best interests.
Much was at risk for one of the most vibrant sectors of the Scottish economy. Food and drink exports to France alone have risen by 58 per cent in the past ten years and EU countries make up three of the top five overseas markets. Overall, threequarters of UK food and drink exports stay within the EU.
The decision to leave throws all that up in the air. With more than half of the UK farming’s total income coming from the Common Agricultural Policy, farmers at the Royal Highland Show are in shock more than most.
Farmer Pete Ritchie, owner of Whitmuir Organics and founding director of Nourish Scotland, told me the result is the worst possible news. He said: “The UK public have made their decision but it’s wrong for Scotland: and the consequences will be turbulence for the foreseeable future, with the independence question coming back at the wrong time and for the wrong reason. Many groups in society will be badly affected, not least our colleagues and neighbours from other EU countries and people living on low wages who face further austerity. For many farmers this means going out of business unless the cynical ‘vow’ from the Brexiteers to match CAP payments is honoured.”
The focus now shifts to what trade deals and tariff agreements can be concluded to support the food and drink industry.
France is Scotland’s second-biggest export market for food and drink, worth £733 million last year. Yet on the eve of the referendum, French president Francois Hollande warned Brexit would mean “a very serious risk Britain would lose its access to the single market”. That will be a major concern for the whisky and shellfish sectors.
There is also the question of what happens to EU name and origin protection for Scottish products ranging from whisky to Arbroath Smokies. On top of that is the issue of what happens to the thousands of farm labourers and fruit pickers currently gathering produce in fields across Scotland.
The referendum result may have provided a big answer but many questions remain.
Those who fought for a leave vote are still celebrating. If one sector was more or less united in wanting to quit it was the fishing industry which has been on the sharp end of quotas and legislation from Brussels for years.
Jimmy Buchan, star of BBC’s Trawlermen and a Peterhead fisherman for more than 40 years, told me: “It’s a fantastic opportunity for Scotland and all of the UK to start a new chapter on our relationship with Europe.
“I’ve witnessed colleagues and friends forced out of business and lose their livelihoods, all under supreme governance of the EU. Britain exiting the EU gives us with the chance to redefine our position in the world. It may be painful at first but we will get there.”
Along the way there will be uncertainty but a new journey is beginning for Scotland’s food and drink sector and there is no going back.