I firmly believe 2022 will be a year of action and determination in tackling some of our most prevalent food and drink challenges. The past two years have highlighted the vulnerability of supply chains as well as issues in attracting and retaining food and drink workers. Nonetheless, there is strong evidence to support my belief in a positive outlook.

Most businesses who took part in our Business Panel survey in October 2021, for example, said they were optimistic about their prospects, even in the face of real concerns around increased costs, labour shortages and supply chains.The survey also showed how the region’s food and drink businesses are taking positive action to reduce the environmental impacts of their operations. They are responding impressively to market demand for natural, local and sustainable products. In doing so they are collaborating with national and international investors and seeking out opportunities to off-set carbon emissions and attract green investment.

Against this backdrop, we have welcomed the opportunity to support and invest in many ambitious and dynamic food and drink projects.

In Applecross in the northwest Highlands, for example, The Scottish Salmon Company is leading a four-year aquaculture research and development project, in which we have committed up to £3m. This will create around 30 new rural jobs and significantly advance salmon farming in Scotland, improving fish welfare and increasing production.

The Uist Distilling Company in Benbecula, meanwhile, is developing a new £12.5m distillery and visitor centre, which will add to the tourism offering in the area. This will create 22 new year-round jobs, which is significant for an island with a working age population of fewer than 800 people. The project will also contribute to the transition to a net zero economy through its use of green energy technology to power the production process.

Further south, Bute Islands Foods is continuing its expansion in the rapidly growing vegan market, in a move that is expected to create 36 new jobs over three years. Reducing plastic waste is a key element of this project.

To the north, the Orkney Cheese Company is investing in a refurbishment project that will allow the company to cut and package their product on the island, rather than sending it to the mainland. As the sole producer of the award-winning Orkney Scottish Island Cheddar, the company is an important employer and is pivotal to the sustainability of Orkney’s dairy sector. The project is expected to increase production, create new jobs, reduce carbon emissions and help the company reach new markets.

On a broader level, the region’s entrepreneurial spirit has strengthened collaboration between business and academia. Highland food and drink producers along with DataLab, Robert Gordon University, HIE and a data solution provider are all working together on a pilot logistics project called ‘HiPlan’.

This involves using emerging technologies to support competitiveness and growth in a traditional sector such as food and drink. It is testing an Artificial Intelligence approach to logistics management that will reduce time to market, lower distribution costs, maximise load efficiencies and lower the sector’s carbon footprint.

The food and drink industry is battling serious labour shortages. Establishing the sector as a career of choice for local people has long been a focus of our investment. 

The urgency of the current situation raises the topic of fair work. Evidence shows that fair work plays an important role in supporting positive behaviours and attitudes in employees, leads to improved business performance and to a better quality of jobs for individuals at all levels.

We want the Highlands and Islands to have a world-leading working life balance where fair work drives success and prosperity. That’s why HIE is developing support for businesses to help them understand why fair work is relevant to their organisation and employees. 

These are just a handful of examples of the many food and drink projects we’re involved in across the Highlands and Islands. And we look forward to a busy year, supporting the industry in its recovery, growth and the creation of jobs.

So, with my glass more than half full, I wish you well in all that 2022 brings.

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