Sandy Kennedy: Rethinking Scotland’s food system could be transformative

Everything is connected. We would prefer for it not to be. But it is.

We, humans, love putting things in boxes, separating things out into neat piles.We narrow down on the specific, often irrelevant details. We are biased towards information we hear first or have immediately to hand. It is how we humans cope with the mind-boggling, dynamic complexity swirling around us. Yet how well does this way of thinking serve us when we seek to tackle big thorny challenges, whether it is a start-up creating a new product never seen before or our society wrestling with solutions to climate change or child poverty.

As Peter Senge puts it in the Fifth Discipline, the way we think “apparently makes complex tasks and subjects more manageable, but we pay a hidden, enormous price. We can no longer see the consequences of our actions; we lose our sense … of the big picture”.

Take something as simple as the food we eat. Take a moment, close your eyes and think about food.

At a basic level we need food to survive. At a social level, food is a reason to gather, to celebrate, to remember. For others, they eat alone, or hardly at all, a daily reminder of their isolation, their struggles. Yet food is about power and politics, borders in the Irish Sea, trade wars, embargoes. Food is about national identity, from haggis to Irn Bru. Food is about business, global supply chains, profits. Food is about health, the nutrition of our communities. Food is about climate change, waste, carbon footprint and food miles. Food is about entrepreneurship and innovation – be it Genius with its Gut Lovin’ Greatness or new ways of producing food like vertical farming with Intelligent Growth Solutions leading the way.

It is all about all these things. It is all connected. Scottish Government is currently working through its new strategy on local food. It rightly recognises the connections between food and health, net zero, community wealth building, the resilience of our food supply chains.

Scotland spends billions per year on food yet we have desperate, decades old, chronic health issues associated with bad diet and fast food. A well-intentioned strategy that remains piecemeal, fragmented and underfunded will not deliver the change we need.

There is a reason why the Government’s own schools, hospitals, prisons buy from the larger non-Scottish suppliers, there is not enough trust in the local system. That trust can be rebuilt by building an infrastructure of local produce sources. Circular supply chains are vital to building a resilient, value creating, food supply system for Scotland. Again, the food system does not sit in isolation, this circularity must align to local energy systems, local distribution channels (including those same schools, hospitals and prisons) and spur local food entrepreneurship.

Local entrepreneurship holds the key, we can do so much more to support and encourage our local food entrepreneurs.

We have exemplars leading the way whether social enterprises like Blackhill’s Growing and Well-Fed, established local producers like Kettle Produce, AquaScot or East of Scotland Growers or innovators like Healthy Nibbles, Rapscallion Soda or Waterwhelm. Scotland Food & Drink, Nourish and Scottish EDGE are doing great work championing these local providers.

Yet imagine how much more we could achieve if we regained our “sense of the big picture”. If Government joined up across all its policies and initiatives. If we integrated local produce infrastructure to broader ambitions for the economy, the health system, innovation, community wealth building, net zero and just transition, wellbeing.

We must work together, rethinking our food system. The cumulative effect would be transformational.

Sandy Kennedy, entrepreneurial optimist

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