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Food For Thought: The Second Course  

25th February 2021

By Tania Alliod, Rural Development Officer for the Cairngorms National Park Authority

In January and February 80 delegates, from across the Highlands, came together virtually at the Highland Good Food Conference to consider what an ideal Highland Good Food Economy would look like. Sharing experiences spanning the whole food sector, from chefs and crofters, to community growers, brewers, restauranteurs, landowners, food retailers, processors, retailers and third sector distributors, delegates were invited to be bold and visionary. Exciting ideas along with useful case studies were shared as together they considered each stage of a future Highland circular food economy. 

Last week I explored how a circular economy works and its importance in achieving Net Zero by 2045. I considered how the Highlands could harness its natural food assets and by playing to our strengths and adapting to our environment there are numerous opportunities to provide locally grown and reared Highland food to our communities.  

From Field to Plate

The geography of the Highlands raises two big challenges for achieving a circular food economy; the first is processing and the second is distribution. An effective processing and distribution network is key to adding value to local produce and getting it onto local plates before it perishes.  

Amazon delivers parcels to our rural doorsteps in an efficient manner, utilising the same local distribution network may be the answer that will gelocally produced food efficiently to our local shops and front doors. Wholesale distributors like Williamsons and Brake Brothers are potential collaborators, instead of returning empty to their depots, there is the potential to uplift local produce and return with food for re-distribution throughout the Highlands.  

Micro food distribution networks do exist at a community level, witness fresh egg honesty boxes and craft bread bakersScaling up production may not be the ambition of all but it will require the simultaneous evolution of an effective logistics network. 

Meat butchering and processing is a bigger challenge. Subject to more legislative controls and significant running costs, the Highlands does not have sufficient capacity right now to manage what is currently reared locally. Animals are often transported elsewhere – a leakage for the circularity model and increased carbon emissions. Small-scale slaughterhouses are mostly dependent on grants to maintain and upgrade machinery, and a point raised by Flora Corbett from Mull Slaughterhouse Ltd, suggested they need to be seen as a public service if they are to continue to exist and serve local markets.  

In Orkney and Shetland, abattoirs are run on a collaborative approach, but with mixed results.The only abattoir in Orkney was operated by a partnership of four local independent butchers, the Orkney Meat Processors Ltd., but it closed in 2018 due to unsupportable running costs. Now livestock is transported to Dingwall for slaughter and produce is then transported back to Orkney.  

The Shetland abattoir found a circular solution for its waste. Owned by Shetland Abattoir Cooperative Ltd., and operated by the Shetland Livestock Marketing Group (SLMG), all waste is sent to Lerwick’s heat energy recycling unit, where it heats local housing. However, it is not the most manageable input and the abattoir expects waste management costs to increase, as such they are currently conducting a feasibility study into other local options.  

Opportunities do exist to develop and strengthen networks and collaboration in the food processing and distribution sectors between producers, commercial operators, and the public sector. Shetland abattoir demonstrates there are circularity opportunities to reduce landfill and re-purpose waste. This model may offer ideas for other Highland communities, especially as we move towards the phasing out of biodegradable waste to landfill by 2025.   

Food Farm2fork Ring Credit
Food Farm2fork Ring Credit

Direct to you

With supermarket home deliveries available, even in more rural areas, local producers need to collaborate to create effective distribution and sales networks to offer us an effective alternative. While there were few examples of success to draw on at the Highland Food Conference, there are producers in the Highlands who have diversified by setting up farm shops, and there is community-level engagement around selling and distributing local produce. 

Much of this has come to the fore as a result of COVID. With pubs, cafes, and restaurants closed, local producers have become more creative with their offerings and taken up direct selling from the back of converted horse boxes, via e-bike delivery and on social media. From sourdough bread, and Kingussie Honey, to eggs and cheese, micro-businesses have sprung up all over the Park in the vacuum left.  

Locals and visitors continue to treat themselves, indulge and seek out authentic local produce from local people with a compelling story to tell – like Kirsten Gilmour, (formerly the Aviemore Mountain Café and now the Bothy Bakery), a whole new business model emerged, with the Cairngorms National Park embedded in her ethos and values for good, locally produced food.  

The final mouthful

Food is a great common denominator, everyone enjoys a great plate of food – and so it is a great topic to connect us to each other, to the land and our seasons. Producing local food in a circular food economy will build resilience into our communities, leading to less reliance on imported foods and reducing carbon emissions in the production, processing, and distribution embedded in their food miles.   

Being ambitious and visionary with local food production will lead to the creation of new and sustainable green jobs, diversification in the local food economy, and an increase in the Highlands of technical innovation and know-how around land use. For the Park, it is a vision that could expand to feed not only our resident population but provide authentic, local produce for our hotels, restaurants, and bars when we welcome our visitors back again.  

A circular food economy also has the potential to put the Cairngorms National Park on the agritourism map and diversify our offering by using our local food story to connect people to our unique and special landscape.  

Looking to the year ahead, we are hopeful there will be another round of the successful Cairngorms Green Recovery Fund and it would great to see some projects coming forwards that are stimulated by all the issues I’ve highlighted above. Get in touch if you have any ideas.   

Further Reading: Growing our Future – A Food Growing Strategy for Highland. 

Missed out on the first course? Read the first installment of Tania’s Food for Thought Blog here