Richard Lochhead is the cabinet secretary for rural affairs and the environment in the Scottish Government and minister for food and drink, agriculture and fisheries. He tells Kerstin Kühn about how he is helping to put Scottish food and drink on the world map
How is the Scottish food and drink industry performing against the recession?
The Scottish food and drink sector has bucked the trend over the last few years and, while it is certainly not immune to the economic downturn, figures have shown that it has outperformed other sectors, both in Scotland and the UK as a whole. That's thanks to us promoting Scottish produce among retailers in the UK and also booming export markets.
For instance, since I came to office in May 2007, food exports have increased 62% and whisky exports have gone up by 50%. The sector is doing so well it could soon be as big as oil and gas in Scotland.
What are the main markets that Scotland exports to? The European and US markets are very important but we're also exploring new markets, particularly in Asia. I've just returned from leading Scotland's biggest-ever food and drinks mission in Shanghai and Tokyo, and the reception we got there was phenomenal. There are massive opportunities for us to tap into.
Consumers in Japan want the best quality and are prepared to pay for this, and they very much want to have more Scottish produce, particularly seafood. So far this has been a hugely missed opportunity, because we don't export that much seafood to Japan. We have to make the most of it, and I'm actively pursuing this at the moment.
What are Scotland's weaknesses in terms of food and drink? We have more and more businesses signing up to our mission of making Scotland the land of food and drink, but we still have a long way to go. There are still lots of visitor attractions where menus can be improved; we still have food manufacturing companies that could source a lot more Scottish ingredients; and there are still export markets that we haven't touched.
There's untapped opportunity everywhere, so while we have made great strides in the past few years, we started from a very low point and therefore there's still an awful lot of room for us to grow.
I have met chefs working around the world, all of whom have been full of praise for Scottish produce. So the challenge we face as a country is making sure that they can get their hands on our produce and use it.
How do you see the Scottish food and drink industry and the hospitality sector working together?
Tell us more about the idea behind the Scottish Food and Drink Champions campaign. We're encouraging outlets to stock Scottish produce and also inform the consumer about where the ingredients are sourced from and the provenance of what they are eating. We have a number of outstanding places in Scotland where you can have amazing experiences of the Scottish larder, and that's exactly the sort of message we're trying to send out. We want food and drink to become a big part of visiting Scotland.
From a hospitality operator's point of view, is there a database or network they could consult to access local suppliers and improve the provenance of their menus? We have launched various initiatives over the past two to three years to help and encourage the food service sector to source more locally, and likewise we have also published guidance for the hospitality industry to help them understand how they can better source ingredients and how their staff can explain to their customers where the produce is from.
Scotland still has a reputation for being an unhealthy nation. How can the country shake that image and improve its health record? There are two things: first, there's Scottish food and drink, and some of the stereotypes - like deep-fried Mars bars - are starting to fade away. Scotland is now fast getting a reputation for quality food and provenance, especially overseas, where people talk about whisky, seafood, beef and many other products.
Second there is, of course, Scotland's health record as a nation, which is woeful, and like many other western European societies we have big issues to deal with.
Thankfully some of the statistics - like heart disease and cancer - are going in the right direction, but obesity is still a huge issue in Scotland. We have this amazingly healthy and nutritious larder but our own people aren't using it as much as they should. A big challenge we face is how to encourage Scottish people to enjoy their own food.
We do have a big revolution under way but it's got a long way to go, and this is not just about big businesses, but it has got to be about communities, local shops, school dinners and hospital and prison food as well.
So are you actively working with food service providers to improve standards? We are working with food service providers, we are reviewing our food education policy, particularly in schools and, through our first food budget, which is now in place, we are supporting community enterprises linked to food. For instance, we now have schools growing their own vegetables, feeding and teaching children about food.
In 2011 Scottish seafood and lamb took centre stage at the Bocuse d'Or in Lyon, the world's biggest cooking competition. What have you done since then to put Scottish produce on the culinary map with professional chefs around the world? We have signed a sponsorship deal with the World Association of Chefs Societies (WACS), which has 10 million members around the globe. Seafood Scotland, Scottish Quality Salmon and Scottish Salmon Producers' Organisation - in partnership with Scottish Development International - have agreed the sponsorship, which will see only Scottish salmon and langoustines featured in the WACS chef competitions over the next two years - culminating in the 2014 final in Norway.
How would Scottish independence help the industry?
It would help the industry in a number of ways: first and foremost the immense profile Scotland will gain in 2014 will give us a huge marketing opportunity. In terms of policy, we will be able to focus on Scotland's priorities with our own powers in this parliament - our own foreign office with our own export officials, who will be able to get Scottish meat exported into overseas markets, which currently isn't a priority for the UK Government.
We will have our own voice in Europe, so when it comes to shaping food labelling and health and safety regulations we will be able to shape them so that they are better suited to Scottish circumstances.
The UK Government doesn't prioritise Scottish food and drink or Scottish farming in Europe and we, therefore, often have to try to unwind or change what Westminster has agreed. With independence we can have our own voice.
The UK hospitality industry has called on the Government for a VAT cut similar to other European countries such as France, which so far has been rejected by Westminster. Would an independent Scottish parliament consider giving the industry such a break? The beauty of independence is that the parliament here will have the ability to make such changes, and we will listen closely to all industries to have that dialogue and work out what we can do to help them. At the moment you may get a closed door from Westminster, but ministers in an independent Scottish Government will have many more powers available to them to help and do things differently.
The future of the artisan hand-dived scallops industry hangs in the balance as reinforced â¨EU regulations prevent operators from â¨selling their products. What are you doing â¨to protect the livelihoods of these â¨producers? We are speaking to the Food Standards Agency about how we can make the regulations more proportionate and to ensure that the concerns of the hand-divers are taken on board. We can't allow bureaucracy to get in the way of small businesses supplying good quality produce. The regulations are there for a reason, to prevent seafood poisoning, but we have to make sure that the right fisheries are being targeted.
Last month MEPs backed the biggest reform plan in the history of the EU's fisheries policy, pledging to restore fish stocks and boost fishing communities. What is your response to their decision? I have been appalled by the Common Fisheries Policies (CFP) across Europe where wasting food seems to be the guiding principle. Thankfully, through the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy and now the CFP, we can begin to tackle food waste. And the scandal of fish discard, which I have been highlighting for many years now, is finally being phased out across Europe.
Scottish food and drink facts and stats
â- Scotland's first National Food and Drink Policy was published in 2009.
â- Turnover in Scotland's food and drink key sector increased by £500m (5%) from £11.8b in 2009 to £12.4b in 2010.
â- The industry broke through its own £5.1b export target six years early and has set a new target of £7b by 2017.
â- Total food and drink exports reached an all-time high of £5.4b in 2011, up 19% from 2010 and up 52% from 2007. Whisky exports reached a record high of £4.23b in 2011, up 23% from 2010 and 50% from 2007.
â- In 2011 9% of Scotland's exports to the rest of the UK were from the food and drink manufacturing sector (£4m), and exports overseas accounted for 18% of the total international exports from Scotland.
â- In the year to September 2012, the top three destinations for food and drink overseas exports were: USA (£763m), France (£736m) and Singapore (£316m). The top three destinations for food exports were: France (£257m), Ireland (£93m) and Germany (£93m).
â- The Eurozone accounted for 73% of overseas food exports in the year to September 2012, compared with 7% for Asia and Oceania.
â- Scottish exports of fish increased from £495m to £652m between 2008 and 2011, a 30% rise in real terms.
â- In 2010 the food and drink supply chain employed almost 369,000 people, 5% of all employment in Scotland.