“We must focus on giving our food businesses the knowledge and tools they need”

Wayne Powell

Bank of England governor Andrew Bailey’s recent reference to “apocalyptic” impacts from the rise in worldwide food prices drew criticism from some quarters for being overly pessimistic in the face of global drivers of inflation, most notably the war in Ukraine. 

While I think he was right to signal a warning about the significant scale of the challenges domestic food suppliers and consumers face, we can’t afford to give way to the idea that sustainability and resilience in our own food systems are outwith our control. Now, more than ever, we must focus on giving our food businesses the knowledge and tools they need to boost productivity and adapt to the multitude of challenges before us. 

SRUC currently provides more business value to SMEs – around £57.5 million over four years – than any other UK higher education institution. We do so with the understanding that collaboration is key to unlocking productivity, not just for food producers, but across the natural economy. New research from SRUC’s Resilience of the UK Food System in a Global Context programme, conducted in partnership with sustainability advisers 3Keel, shows why. The report, looking at the role of SMEs in hedging risk in food production across the UK, clearly highlighted the significant potential for collaboration between small and large enterprises, alongside universities and government. 

SMEs constitute around 97 per cent of our food businesses but account for only a minority of overall activity in a sector still dominated by a smaller number of very large operators. Yet the research shows how universities can boost SME innovation and collaboration across the food system at a practical level, working closely with larger food businesses and government. In turn, large businesses have the capacity to support SMEs within their supply chains – and promote resilience along the way. Government has a huge part to play too, adding value by making infrastructure investments and restructuring research grants. 

For me, the lessons are clear. If we want to be confident in the face of today’s ‘grand challenges’ associated with the natural economy, like food sustainability and climate change, then collaboration, innovation and productivity must go hand in hand in practical ways. Securing better performance for enterprises as a catalyst for a faster, more efficient, more sustainable growth pathway in the just transition to net zero is in our grasp; but only if institutions and businesses do more to work together. 

The UK’s Research Excellence Framework (REF2021) – the system for evaluating the quality and impact of research in our higher education institutions – gives one snapshot of how this can be done. The latest results rated the research power of Agriculture, Food and Veterinary Sciences at SRUC and the University of Edinburgh as number one in the UK based on the quality and breadth of the work we do. Through the combined world-leading research, advisory service and teaching excellence we provide, Scotland is already at the top table when it comes to applied practice in addressing the big questions of how our economy engages with challenges in the natural economy. 

Yet in this, the tenth anniversary of the creation of SRUC though the merger of the Scottish Agricultural College with Barony, Elmwood and Oatridge Colleges, we aren’t resting on our laurels. Our journey towards attaining taught degree awarding powers and research degree awarding powers, and the establishment of Scotland’s first new school of veterinary medicine for more than 150 years, will add to our institutional strength in powerful ways. But that’s just a start. 

So, what’s next? We know that the most productive and powerful agrifood-based economies in the world have at their heart a world-class university focused on that domain, and acting at the intersection of business, government and society. By shaping such a powerhouse, we can drive billions of pounds in added value in primary sectors, boost food and drink sustainability, lead the world in reducing agricultural emissions and develop a skilled workforce through place-based support for agri-food business sectors. 

SRUC is in a unique position to work with its partners to realise that potential at pace. If we get this right, the grand challenges before us, from climate change to food and energy poverty mitigation, may be no less significant, but our shared capacity to respond to them with practical solutions that drive economic prosperity will be transformed. 

Professor Wayne Powell is Principal and Chief Executive of Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC).