Karen Betts delivers speech at key annual dairy conference

15 January 2024

FDF CEO Karen Betts speaks to attendees at the 2024 Semex International Dairy Conference and shares the FDF ‘Mission Possible’ strategy, which explores new opportunities for innovation and growth in dairy and across the food and drink manufacturing sector.


Today [Monday 15th January 2023] FDF CEO, Karen Betts attended the 2024 Semex International Dairy Conference in Glasgow, where she delivered a speech at the ‘Sharing our Mission’ session.

To an audience which included key industry stakeholders from across British farming and the dairy sector, Karen addressed the challenges the UK’s largest manufacturing sector, Food and Drink, has faced since the seismic global shocks of the pandemic, war in Ukraine and cost of living crisis in recent years, alongside the growing sense of optimism within the sector.

In her speech, Karen also highlighted the work the FDF is doing to help members, focusing on new opportunities for innovation and growth to address four key areas:

Environmental sustainability

The food systems globally are responsible for roughly a third of greenhouse gas emissions. Across the UK food and drink industry, our collective priorities are to achieve a food system that’s net zero, nature positive and circular; that’s resilient and economically sustainable; that treats people fairly; and where healthy food is readily accessible.

FDF members are working on these issues in both their own operations and their supply chains, with the FDF’s support. However, the transformation needed to see towards a sustainable food system must accelerate.

A clearer vision is needed and more ambition across all aspects of the challenge; more and better-defined policies; better coordination and collaboration between all actors - from food companies to farmers, government departments and finance institutions - and a step change in the finance available.

Innovation and technological change

Innovation and technological change are critical to securing the resilience of agriculture and food systems in the face of climate change, to provide secure access to safe, sufficient, affordable, and nutritious food for all.

It’s imperative that we keep up the pace of transformational R&D in our industry – in digital technologies, scientific and engineering innovation – to develop novel ways of tackling the challenges ahead, whether this is crop yields, animal disease control, soil health, data use, or recyclable packaging which also cuts down on food waste.

Our industry will want to work more with the government to ensure we’re attracting the right investment into the future of food and agriculture in the UK. For the government in the UK, encouraging investment in advanced manufacturing has so often been about capital intensive industries like cars, aerospace, shipbuilding, and steel. But we’re starting to change that definition. We are starting to gain traction with the argument that supporting innovation in our sector and fostering investment in technology (like robotics) and science (like novel ingredients) is key to our food security and to health.

Labour and the workforce

food and drink sector in the UK – from farming at one end to hospitality and retail at the other – employs over 4 million people. But a variety of factors mean that, particularly post-Brexit, the food sector has struggled to recruit and retain an adequate workforce.

John Shropshire led an excellent review last year into labour shortages, and we await the government’s response. Our industry is keen to work with a range of partners – from government to the education sector and industry bodies – to implement rapidly the review’s recommendations.

It’s critical that our sector attracts new entrants, with the right baseline training and qualifications. Allied to this is how we ensure the roles that can be are automated, alongside ensuring we have skilled workers to manage more advanced sites. An increased use of technology doesn’t mean fewer jobs, but the creation of more, higher skilled ones.

There are responsibilities each way. We have a responsibility to inspire young people, as well as those looking for a mid-career change, to join our dynamic food industry, with its close connection to the quality everyone’s daily lives. We have a responsibility to offer jobs and careers that develop people, where they can grow their skills and experience over many years. But the links between education and industry must become stronger, with education at all levels more responsive to the needs of the economy.

Healthy and sustainable diets

We must ensure everyone in the UK has access to food and drink that supports balanced diets and helps people to maintain a healthy weight, while reducing our impact on the environment. Our industry is very conscious of the challenge here and our members know we must help to address this problem.

Our focus is currently in three areas:

  1. The first is in developing new, healthier products at the same time as changing the recipes of existing products to reduce calories and remove – where possible – salt and sugar, while increasing fibre. The science behind this work is complex but over the last 8 years, we’ve achieved 13% fewer calories, 15% fewer sugars and 24% less salt in the average shopping basket, with more and more healthier choices available to shoppers.
  2. Secondly, we are working with MoreLife and Leeds Beckett University to identify how our companies support the long-term health both of their employees and of the communities within which they’re based, through a range of pilot projects, based in and around factory sites, exploring different activities and interventions, tailored to what employees want and linked to local services.
  3. Finally, we’re researching how people respond to nutritional and lifestyle messaging, and whether simple changes to this – considering the pressures of our daily lives and the complexity of some of the advice – could have more of a positive impact.

Find out more about the FDF and how to become a member.