Andy Richardson, chair of Food and Drink Wales Board, reflects on a challenging year but remains overwhelmingly positive on the outlook for Wales’ dynamic food and drink scene for the long term.
taste.blas: Clearly, it’s been a tumultuous year and the temptation is to overlook the steps forward taken by the Welsh food and drink community since 2015 – can you remind us how we’ve done?
Andy Richardson: The industry has grown over 30% since 2015 to its current level of over £7billion. This is a massive achievement by all involved in the industry but it’s deeper than just financial growth. The Welsh food and drink industry has developed its collaborative spirit, innovative capability, skills foundation, influence on the UK stage and above all, confidence in our ability as an industry. However, we all know that that Coronavirus has hit the industry hard. Some businesses have thrived, some have experienced little change but many have suffered badly, particularly those who work in or supply the hospitality sector
tb: The short-term impact of COVID has been huge. From your perspective what have been the biggest consequences and how can foodies help overcome them?
AR: Many businesses have been affected but those that are connected to hospitality have been hit hard. The viability of many businesses has been affected through no fault of their own and many businesses have become much less resilient due to the loss of staff and financial reserves. I also worry that innovation in the food sector has been pushed back because of the effect on financials but I do believe that innovation is one of the ways we can come out of this crisis leaner and fitter and customer focused and we have great resources in Wales to create food innovation. Markets are changing and we need to be at the front of the wave of change. There is also a fantastic collaborative spirit in Wales which we need to leverage if we are to gain anything from this crisis. There will always be opportunities to do things differently and put a twist on the traditional – people love food and have a huge appetite for trying something new.
Nor should we forget that, with over 3 million population in Wales, our local market is significant, diverse and full of opportunities and its important the industry gains a higher market share in our home market. After all, Wales should support Welsh produce! There’s no reason not to – it’s much more sustainable and we have some of the best provenance in the world with some extremely tasty and interesting food products available.
tb: What do you think will be the longer-term consequences of COVID? Will there be a sea-change in how and where we buy our food and drink and the nature of the products we buy?
AR: In my view crises don’t bring about change but they speed up the rate of change. In other words they speed up existing trends. I have no doubt that the trend to more online shopping will develop and that there will be a greater emphasis on better, healthier food with a greater provenance back story. Again, Wales is perfectly placed to pick up on this trend if we work together. We have a massive opportunity now to take advantage of global markets – talking to international buyers over recent years I really get the fact that they value the provenance story of Welsh food and drink.
I also think there is an opportunity in public food procurement. Whilst there are many cases where food is innovative we simply must do better to provide healthier, more exciting food and give smaller and more diverse food businesses the opportunity to access public food procurement and see it as a prize worth achieving.
The wellbeing of the Welsh food and drink industry is inextricably linked to the success of the hospitality sector which itself has suffered so much during the Coronavirus pandemic. We hope that, as we come out of the crisis and with increased focus on ‘staycations’, food tourism and eating out recover quickly.
tb: Much has been made of potential lowered food standards after the passing of the Agriculture Bill and in post-Brexit deals – is there seriously a risk this will happen? And how should Wales’ producers and the buying public respond?
AR: There is always the threat that this will happen and we need to be mindful of this happening. However, I think we need to focus on the opportunities. I believe some international markets will value products that are produced in clean and environmental ways and will pay a premium for these products and there is no reason why Welsh food and drink can’t capitalise on these opportunities.
tb: What else can we expect to see happen when Brexit formally comes in to force? Will it really make much of a difference?
AR: The EU is a key market for Welsh food and drink and therefore the long term relationship will play a critical role in our future. I do think we need to lift up our eyes to the opportunity created by wider, alternative international markets and focus on those where Wales can secure long term added value markets and focus less on short term commodity business. Key to this will be to really understand what our core brand values are for Welsh food and drink and have the confidence to project these on to the world stage.
tb: How can Wales play to its strengths post COVID and Brexit?
AR: Focus on added value, strong brand values and a strong back story of provenance, integrity and creativity. Products need to be well marketed – there is no point in having the best product in the tin or jar if the marketing doesn’t inspire the consumer to buy it in the first place.
tb: Short-term issues aside, what’s the general outlook for food and drink in Wales? What are you seeing on the ground?
AR: The outlook is excellent – we have all the ingredients from a supportive Government to an industry which has the drive to develop. We need to focus on innovation, financial security and resilient business models delivered through a motivated, collaborative and educated workforce. People are now looking at Wales – they are intrigued by our success and curious about what we do well.
tb: Any really encouraging and/or uplifting observations/stories?
AR: I don’t want to highlight any particular business because so many are doing an amazing job. However, I would like to highlight that Welsh food and drink businesses focus on creating interesting and sustainable products and I would encourage food and drink businesses to have a relentless focus on consumers both in the UK and abroad and use our enviable resources for food innovation. We are definitely on a growth trajectory and I believe we will only achieve the success we deserve if we collaborate effectively with others in the food chain.
tb: And what of Welsh Government plans broadly speaking? What are the growth objectives for the next few years? How important will food and drink be to the Welsh economy of the future?
AR: We want to continue to grow but it’s not all about financial growth – we need to work to deliver the aims and objectives of the Future Generations Act which is now part of our DNA in Wales. Food and drink is so important not just to our economy but to our amazing landscape and the health of our citizens. There is a strong connection to Welsh tourism and we need to do better to connect the two for our mutual success. We would also like to see the brand of Welsh food and drink to be even clearer and stronger on the world stage.
The wellbeing of the Welsh food and drink industry is inextricably linked to the success of the hospitality sector which itself has suffered so much during the Coronavirus pandemic. We hope that, as we come out of the crisis, that all forms of hospitality including those involved in tourism and eating out recover quickly.