Collaborate and we’ll innovate

Food manufacturers and others need to work together to find solutions for a new era’s challenges says Colette Backwell, director of the Scottish Food and Drink Federation.

Colette Backwell, director of the Scottish Food and Drink Federation.
Colette Backwell, director of the Scottish Food and Drink Federation.
THROUGHOUT its history the food industry has embraced new ideas and new approaches which have transformed consumers’ lives. By constantly investing for the long-term in our people, products and processes we have increased the supply of safe, affordable and nutritious foods so that the average proportion of income spent on food has dropped from 50% in 1914 to around 10% in 2014.
Despite these successes, the UK food and drink manufacturing sector faces major challenges that require urgent attention. We need to reduce our environmental impact, produce more for a growing population from less as pressure increases on resources, reformulate and create new products to meet diet and health requirements, and deliver our sector’s vision of 20% growth by 2020. Meeting these challenges will require innovative transformations in the way we do business at all levels – from the ingredients we use and the products we make, to how we package them and transport them to our customers.
However, the UK food manufacturing sector is diverse with over 7,700 companies – many of which are small enterprises employing less than 10 people. The sector relies on a wide range of raw materials and ingredients throughout the whole supply chain. Companies cannot always afford the risk of funding
research to drive improvements by themselves. If companies could collaborate on pre-competitive research projects to tackle shared challenges there would be the potential for improved efficiency, reduced waste and better nutrition that would benefit both consumers and the wider economy.
The Food and Drink Federation’s vision is for an innovative, resilient and resource-efficient food and drink manufacturing supply chain that delivers affordable, nutritious and safe food for 21st century populations. We have taken the first steps in creating a better future by working with the Knowledge Transfer Network to identify the top 10 priority areas for pre-competitive innovation. In Scotland, we are working in partnership with Scotland Food and Drink, Interface, Scottish Enterprise, academia and companies to express the needs and priorities of the sector.
The Industry Advisory Group on Resource Efficiency, set up by SFDF, Resource Efficient Scotland and Interface, offers an example of how effective collaborations between the public and private sector can deliver innovation with huge impact. So too does SFDF’s Scottish Government-funded Reformulation Programme which has provided support to SMEs to reformulate products for health.
We must create forums which actively bring together industry and academia and in which new innovative solutions for the sector can be researched and developed, as well as ground-breaking initiatives such as the recently launched Centre of Excellence in Food Engineering at Sheffield Hallam University. The ambition for the Centre of Excellence is to provide world class engineering facilities – acting as a hub for engineering-related innovation and engineering skills solutions. This will help improve productivity and ultimately competitiveness in the food and drink manufacturing sector.
By taking a more collaborative approach to innovation we can achieve even more, overcoming the challenges facing the sector and society and delivering additional benefits for our businesses, customers and community.