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Food: What does the future hold?

06 May 2011

In this riveting opinion piece, Food & Drink Federation director-general Melanie Leech gives her views on what the future holds for the food and beverage sector, and appeals for political leadership

The ability to see into the future is a skill many of us may wish we possessed – but of course I’m not able to predict with certainty what the next few years will hold for our industry. What I can give you is an insight into where the challenges lie for businesses looking to the future, and perhaps more importantly, where the opportunities lie.

Despite the challenging business environment of recent times, the UK food industry has remained dynamic and successful. We were resilient in the economic downturn and one of the first to recover from the recession. Exports have been a particular strength.

In March we announced food and drink exports had increased for the sixth consecutive year in a row – smashing through the £10bn barrier and reaching £10.7bn in 2010. We’ve also continued to invest for the future: more than £1bn is spent on R&D in our sector each year with more than 1,500 new products launched every quarter. In short, as the UK’s largest manufacturing sector and a major UK employer, we contribute significantly to the UK economy.

However, we continue to face strong competition from around the world, so we must not be complacent about our achievements. To remain world-class, we must continue to invest and innovate as well as attract and retain the right skills. In common with other manufacturing sectors we have an image problem!

But the events of the last few years give us a real opportunity to appeal to school and college leavers with an offer of a well-paid, long-term rewarding career. And the government’s agenda to rebalance the British economy and to recognise the pivotal role of manufacturing – making things well – in economic growth is highly welcome.

In the food and drink industry we also have specific skills shortages in key areas such as food science and technology. Unless we can address this our ability to innovate and develop new products – vital to meet the demands of our consumers and to remain a world class industry - will be seriously threatened.

These two issues – the image of the industry and our skills shortage in food science and technology – are the key motivators behind FDF’s careers campaign Taste Success – A Future on Food. Launched earlier this year, the campaign aims to raise the profile of the food industry to potential entrants, particularly in key areas such as science and technology.

As part of this work we’re also working with the sector skills council Improve to increase the number of apprenticeships offered in the food manufacturing sector.

FDF members also recognise the need to play our part in tackling some of the wider challenges that face society and I confidently predict these issues, and the need for the food and drink industry to make a significant contribution, will remain high on the agenda for the foreseeable future.

Take public health and obesity for example. The Government’s recently launched Public Health Responsibility Deal sets out a challenge to the food industry to work in partnership with government and other stakeholders to improve public health and by doing so to deliver more, more quickly than previous approaches.

At the FDF, we’ve welcomed this opportunity and fully recognise our responsibilities. We have a track record of delivery on which we can build – through our efforts over many years in reformulating our products and introducing new ‘healthier’ products to the market; supporting increased food literacy among consumers through clear, simple front-of-pack nutrition labelling; and, significantly given our size as a sector, within our own workforce.

The size of the challenge is immense however and we recognise the Responsibility Deal must be part of a long-term public health strategy.

Moving on to the issues of climate change and food security, it’s clear, as highlighted in Foresight’s Global Food and Farming Futures report - commissioned by Government to explore the increasing pressures on the global food system between now and 2050 - that business as usual is no longer good enough.

We have to be radical in our thinking if we’re to meet the challenge ahead to produce more food while using fewer natural resources, and with less impact on the planet.

To achieve this, all we need is political leadership. We need a clear food strategy for the UK which prioritises sustainable food production and sets out a vision for the role the UK should play within a similar global strategy.

Again, industry is already making a significant contribution on which a future long-term strategy can build. FDF’s Five-fold Environmental Ambition – setting out an ambitious agenda for the food and drink manufacturing sector on carbon reduction, water, food and packaging waste and ‘food miles’ is now into its fourth year and delivering impressive results.

But we’ve recognised it’s not sufficient for each actor to put its own house in order. We want to work in partnership with others – across the food chain and beyond – to ensure our actions are truly joined-up and deliver collectively more than the sum of the parts. And again, we’re in it for the long haul.

When you look at the issues we face – from the health of the nation to the health of the planet – it’s clear we can only respond effectively if we have a successful food manufacturing sector in the UK. I’m positive about the future for food and drink manufacturing.

I’m convinced our sector will successfully respond and adapt to the challenges ahead – just as it’s always done. And I’m confident we’ll be able to work with others in Government and beyond to make a real difference in a way that genuinely benefits consumers and industry.

 Melanie Leech is director-general of the Food & Drink Federation


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