UK food and drink exports reached £25bn 2022 and it remains a key sector for the UK economy. The IOE&IT Daily Update recently sat down with Ian Wright, co-chair of the Food and Drink Export Council (FDEC), a collaborative venture between government and industry to boost UK food and drink exports, to talk about how to maximise the sector's potential.
In the session, many described grappling with post-Brexit barriers, such as learning new regulatory requirements and absorbing additional costs.
FDEC was formed in response to a 2021 petition advocating for the protection of farming and agriculture in post-Brexit trade deals, which received over 1m signatures.
It has been up and running from January 2023, and holds quarterly meetings bringing together its four working groups which are designed to increase businesses’ exporting capabilities, market and promote exporting, address trade barriers and establish exporting best practices among food and drink manufacturers.
First and foremost, on the council’s agenda is ensuring that all businesses have the information they need to be confident exporting.
Wright explains that an important part of FDEC’s remit is bridging the gap for businesses that want to export but are unsure where to start. And he’s confident that the gap is easily closed.
"There’s a wealth of existing material available,” he says. “It’s a case of connecting the dots so that businesses can access it."
Wright believes aggregating the information currently available is key to boosting businesses’ capacity to export, rather than churning out yet more content on new regulations.
“Essentially the key is accessibility. Can you find it? Can you find 80% of what you need very quickly and in a format that can be easily digested?”
A key focus for FDEC moving forward, will be finding the most cost- and time-efficient way of facilitating this access.
One aspect of planning this support, which he says is equally exciting and challenging, is considering where the industry will be in the next decade.
In light of ongoing crises, such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the threat of mass disruption in the form of another pandemic, Wright says its necessary to understand their impact “over the next five, 10 or 15 years”.
However, this entails navigating a lot of unknowns; a point heightened by the impact of technology on the industry. He added:
“This is kind of wacky, but today you can already 3D-print a cake.
“If we’re able to print cakes in 2023, you’ve got to assume that by 2033, we’ll be able to print just about anything, anywhere.
“Just think what implications that might have for the traditional transportation systems - and costs - at the heart of the way we export goods. It will be revolutionary.”
Although Wright emphasises the wealth of information already available to businesses, he doesn’t shy away from backing more formal education to support those wishing to export.
In particular, he sees the post-Covid era as a great opportunity to offer professionals the chance to network and learn in-person.
As to the format of such sessions, he says “there’s a lot of opportunity for people to become better informed through face-to-face training”, adding that the council plans to run a series of events in late 2023 and 2024.
“One of our first efforts is going be a peer-to-peer learning experience. We want to give people the chance to talk to colleagues and others from the industry who have succeeded in exporting. Hopefully they’ll also be fun.”
With FDEC fully up and running, Wright is excited for the economy to start reaping the benefits of greater food and drink exports.
In 2022, the UK’s food and drink sector, the largest manufacturing sector in the country, comprised nearly 12,500 businesses, with estimated exports of £25bn, according to the Food and Drink Federation.
Made up of 97% SMEs, FDEC’s work to unlock food and drink’s export potential taps into a broader drive to encourage smaller businesses to export. As Wright says:
“If we can boost the number of businesses exporting, not only is that bringing more revenue to the UK, but we can also improve the quality of our business base.
“We know that businesses that export are better businesses, the data shows they’re more efficient, more innovative and they offer better conditions for their staff.”