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The humble British blackcurrant: a supply-chain success story

Established in 1938, Ribena is made from 100% British Blackcurrants

Suntory Beverage & Food GB&I

7 min read Partner content

Ribena celebrated its 85th birthday this year bringing into focus the unique supply chain that is almost as old as the drink itself.

The changing of the seasons brings time for reflection on the success story that is British farming. For centuries, British agriculture has been a vital part of the nation’s economy and identity. Representing over 70% of current land use, the industry is not only a major contributor to GDP, but plays a key role in shaping our landscapes and rural communities, on top of, of course, putting food on the nation’s table.

Yet, in recent years, systems that get food from farm to fork have become increasingly fragile. The climate crisis is posing a significant threat to the future of British farming. When labour shortages and funding issues are involved too, our ingredient and food producers face a perfect storm.

It is more important than ever before to be building resilience into our food supply chain.

As the custodian of much-loved British brand Ribena, which traces its roots in the British countryside back over 80 years, Suntory Beverage and Food GB&I (SBF GB&I) knows better than most that true resilience comes from embedding sustainable practices at the heart of its business. It is only by doing right by the natural environment and farming communities now – 'Growing for Good' – that SBF GB&I believes it will have the supply chain to support the business’ own growth. 

Established in 1938, Ribena has been loved by generations of consumers since and remains a firm family favourite. Its success is in no small part down to the British blackcurrant industry. 100% of the blackcurrants that make Ribena are British grown, accounting for 90% of the British blackcurrant crop overall. But perhaps even more important is the unique and long-lasting history Ribena has with the UK blackcurrant industry and its growers. The average relationship between Ribena and its growers goes back five decades and, in some instances, a remarkable 70 years – spanning up to four generations of farming family.

Third-generation blackcurrant grower Josh Berry and his family have been growing blackcurrants on their farm since the 1960s | Credit: The Blackcurrant Foundation
Third-generation blackcurrant grower Josh Berry and his family have been growing blackcurrants on their farm since the 1960s | Credit: The Blackcurrant Foundation

The foundation of this relationship is the provision by Ribena and SBF GB&I of long-term contracts that provide financial security and reflect the true value of the growers’ work. Blackcurrants have a long maturity – it can take four or five years from planting blackcurrants until a successful harvest – and harvests are becoming increasingly unpredictable too. SBF GB&I’s contracts provide growers with the confidence that there will be a market for the blackcurrants they grow and reassurance that a bad harvest and low yield will not exclude them from this market in future years.

It is a model that is firmly welcomed by blackcurrant growers. Third-generation blackcurrant grower Josh Berry from Faversham, Kent, told PoliticsHome “Our longstanding contractual model demonstrates how UK blackcurrant growers have been encouraged to dovetail their individual growing operations with a leading international food and drink producer. Certainly, a particularly unique relationship which continues to give growers the confidence to make key strategic investment in their individual businesses to future proof production and supply of UK blackcurrants. As growers, we are very proud of the Ribena brand and feel well supported by SBF GB&I.”

Ribena's Six Point Plan for Biodiversity was put in place in 2004 to protect natural habitats
Ribena's Six Point Plan for Biodiversity was put in place in 2004 to protect natural habitats

Building on the certainty the contracts provide to blackcurrant growers, SBF GB&I provides the investment and support to help growers address both the short- and long-term issues they face on their farms, further consolidating the mutual trust between them. Every grower and their farm are unique but there are some universal areas where SBF GB&I helps. All of Ribena’s blackcurrant growers are committed to improving biodiversity on their farms for instance, so SBF GB&I have been working in partnership with them to put in place comprehensive Biodiversity Action Plans which support on-farm conservation and protect habitats where Ribena blackcurrants are grown.

To help growers navigate the continual extremes of British weather, Ribena has been working with the James Hutton Institute investing over £2m to improve the sustainability and quality of British blackcurrant crops. This year SBF GB&I also launched a new regenerative farming project in Norfolk. Launched in collaboration with the University for East Anglia, Suntory Holdings Limited and Soil Ecology Laboratory, it will focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from blackcurrant production, while at the same time improving soil health so it can support plant resilience and increase the amount of carbon it can sequester. Minimising external inputs, while improving soil health, plant nutrition and environmental protection will mean better outcomes for the environment and ensure blackcurrant growing remains financially viable for the long-term. SBF GB&I hopes this will help to create a blueprint for regenerative agriculture that the entire sector could follow, promoting both sustainability and growth for the long-term.

Blackcurrant harvesting takes place in July and August
Blackcurrant harvesting takes place in July and August

SBF GB&I and Ribena’s unique supply chain and long-term approach to sourcing provides a strong model for the future of Britain’s food and drink sector – one that can support our farming and agricultural communities and ensure long-term security of our food supply.

Ribena’s blackcurrant growers agree. As second-generation blackcurrant farmer David Hinchliff, also based in Kent, told PoliticsHome, “Our relationship with SBF GB&I is unique and one we’re proud to be part of. Recognising the immense challenges growers are under, SBF GB&I works in a genuine partnership with us. With no short-term punishing contracts, we are incentivised to invest and grow. With joined up shared thinking and a clearly communicated strategy we can deliver more meaningful outcomes to the environment, the economy, our public health and job creation. Replicating this model elsewhere is easily achieved and would deliver greater and more long-term benefits on these areas”.

SBF GB&I launches Ribena Blackcurrant Growers' Survey 2023 in UK Parliament with its blackcurrant growers | Credit: Paul Heartfield
SBF GB&I launches 'Ribena Blackcurrant Growers' Survey 2023' in UK Parliament with its blackcurrant growers | Credit: Paul Heartfield

SBF GB&I firmly believes it is a model other businesses could follow. And something governments could do more to support. As shown by the Ribena Blackcurrant Grower’s Survey launched by SBF GB&I earlier this year, it’s clear from growers that governments could be doing more to support agriculture. This includes providing more environmental support to tackle climate change, so all growers are investing in new technology and techniques to increase sustainability. Changes to the labour market have had an impact on their ability to operate, so labour availability needs to increase, particularly around harvest time. And there are significant concerns about the Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMs) which they feel disincentivises food production.

As SBF GB&I Chief Operating Officer Carol Robert told PoliticsHome, “There are many challenges facing British blackcurrant growers but SBF GB&I is confident that by business and governments working closer together, the future of British farming and agriculture can be secured. We will continue to invest, support and innovate in partnership with our blackcurrant growers to ensure Ribena remains a firm family favourite now and for generations to come”.

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