While food and drink manufacturers have not been completely insulated from the economic downturn, we have weathered the storm better than most. We have continued to maintain strong output, provide employment opportunities nationwide and generate wealth for the nation.
One example of our resilience is our export performance. Many have talked of the importance to the UK of an export-led recovery in manufacturing, but I would argue that only one sector can truly claim to have made any tangible progress on this front.
UK food and non-alcoholic drink exports were up 4.4% in 2009 to £9.7bn, a fourth consecutive year of record growth, built in part on the back of strong performances in added-value product areas such as soft drinks, breakfast cereals, biscuits, sauces and condiments. Put another way, we have added £2bn to our export figures since 2007 and the start of the credit crunch.
Compare our performance with the 11.8% drop in exports for all UK commodities in 2009 and you can see our sector is outperforming manufacturing as a whole.
All of which is a very timely reminder that UK food and drink is not only the country's biggest manufacturing industry, it is a high-value sector with world-class capabilities in production, logistics, sales and marketing.
Innovation is the lifeblood of our sector. It underpins our success in both domestic and export markets. The recession has clearly created new consumer and customer pressures on pricing, but our sector nevertheless launched an incredible 7,500 products on to the UK grocery market in 2009 [Mintel].
Such figures help explain why government must put our sector at the heart of its economic thinking particularly if it wants to rebalance the UK economy away from an over-reliance on financial services.
National policy must reflect the key strategic role food and drink manufacturers will play in ensuring the nation's future food security against climate change, higher global demand and increasing pressure on finite resources.
Government has taken some encouraging first steps with the launch of Defra's Food 2030 vision. But it is now time to turn fine words into action with a cross-Whitehall strategy that will safeguard the future success of UK food and drink manufacturing. We have lots of ideas and we are eager to work in genuine partnership with key departments to develop an action plan.
It is only by having a clear strategy that we can be confident that we can continue to supply consumers with food that is safe, nutritious and affordable with the lowest-possible environmental impacts while still making a positive contribution to the economy itself.
But we have another, more basic demand: given our economic, strategic and social importance, we believe it's high time government stopped taking us for granted. We are not alone in thinking this way.
The government's own Council of Food Policy Advisors has urged ministers to include the sector in its strategic thinking about Britain's economic future.
It's a no-brainer that the next government should actively support one of the UK's few manufacturing success stories, and FDF looks forward to working across Whitehall to ensure our sector gets the prominence it deserves.
Ross Warburton is president of the FDF.