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Red Tractor comes under fire for new environmental module

Farmers have fiercely criticised the introduction of a voluntary environment module by Red Tractor, which is due to be available from next year.

British farm with sheep in the foreground

Red Tractor has announced that its voluntary environment module will be available from April 2024, but while the news has been welcomed by retailers, farmers have fiercely criticised the move.

According to Red Tractor, the module offers farmers, processors and packers one set of common criteria, and is set to operate very differently from the typical core standards.

It is being introduced to tackle the potential increase in audit demands on farmers as retailers, out of home operators and brands face pressure to source produce more sustainable.

However, a backlash on social media and forums has seen farmers raise serious concerns that the module could become compulsory, forcing farm businesses to spend more on higher environmental standards, without being paid for it.

What is the Greener Farms Commitment?

Red Tractor says the module will allow farmers to make commitments and track their own progress across five key areas for environmentally focused farming:

  • Carbon foot printing
  • Soil management
  • Nutrient management
  • Waste management
  • Biodiversity.

It will recognise other schemes or programmes such as the SFI and other devolved government schemes, reducing the cost and complexity, and making it as easy as possible for farmers to complete, Red Tractor says.

The GFC will also have its own logo, for farmers to demonstrate their environmental credentials to consumers, whilst also differentiating the high quality of British products compared to international competition.

From 1st April 2024, the scheme will be open to the supply chain across all sectors where members are already certified against Red Tractor’s core standards. The GFC will be administered by Red Tractor directly, rather than by appointed Certification Bodies.

Unlike core standards, the GFC does not require the same thing at every farm, but instead requires farmers to register a plan for progress that is unique to their circumstances, and then measure their success and learning against that.

There will also be a dedicated Development Advisory Panel (DAP) to oversee the detail, operation, and evolution of the GFC. Its first task will be to give feedback on the technical content of the module before it is finalised and published to help ensure its practical application by sector.

The news has been welcomed by major retailers and the British Retail Consortium.

Farming reaction

Speaking on BBC 4’s Farming Today programme, Leicestershire farmer Joe Stanley said that whilst the industry is keen to move in a more sustainable direction, natural capital services such as carbon footprinting, soil management and biodiversity creation etc, which the GFC refers to, are all expected to create new income streams in future, to replace BPS payments.

“So I think the concern here from many farmers is that we are looking at being set up to give those things away for free to the rest of the food supply chain, to the retailers, to help them fulfil their environmental commitment.”

He added: “Of course it’s being trailed as a voluntary measure but as is usually the case with such things, it will inevitably soon become the industry standard and everyone will be required to adhere to it.”

Norfolk farmer Henry Catling commented on X: ‘Once again British farmers are being asked to go above and beyond for no premium. Voluntary will soon be compulsory, and once again UK Ag will suffer to the supermarkets benefit.’

North west farmer Liz Hoggarth, meanwhile, said on X that adhering to the module would cost her business £9,000 a year and expressed concerns that the NFU was not part of the consultation process.

She wrote: ‘I love the #redtractor model, it engages and is recognised by the general public, but we need to do more ourselves to engage as primary producers, we need to sell our product before the @Conservatives sell us down the river like the bales in Inveraray!

‘@RedTractorFood have to ensure farm assured farms receive a premium for their produce if the retailers want us to just through hoops, the cost has to STOP being passed down to the primary producer.’

NFU president Minette Batters replied: ‘It’s my understanding that the consultation starts now. Whether we like it or not sustainability is becoming the licence to trade but there MUST be a premium and that premium must come back to the farm gate.’

“Completely unacceptable”

Having come under fire from farmers on X, NFU vice president Tom Bradshaw said in a statement that the union has been “robustly challenging” the governance behind the environment module for the past 18 months.

“I was alarmed that it had been previously decided by the Red Tractor board that in developing this module all of the technical committees and sector boards where NFU members sit would be bypassed. I have found this position completely unacceptable and said so repeatedly.”

He added: “We have never said that as one of the 18 members of the Red Tractor board we didn’t have knowledge of the module, but at no point have expert NFU members and advisors been involved with the development of the crucial details within it.”

Mr Bradshaw said “significant concessions” had been gained to allow the module to be scrutinised by the technical advisory committees and sector boards. The NFU also fought for and gained agreement to set up the Development Advisory Panel. The union also highlighted concerns about how this could work in the devolved nations with their differing agricultural policies, which have not been involved at all, he added.

Aim is to “protect farmers”, CEO says

Defending the scheme, Red Tractor CEO Jim Moseley said it aims to protect farmers from from future audit demands, costs and complexity.

Speaking on the Farming Today programme he said: “We know that almost all retailers are looking to demonstrate their environmental commitment. Our concern is that could potentially lead to a multitude of demands on farmers and that those farms are going to be inundated with requests for different carbon footprints, different approaches on biodiversity etc etc.

“So where we started from is trying to develop a common industry approach that would reduce the number of programmes, audits or things farmers would have to do by having one simple module that meets the needs of all of those retailers and brands and OOH operators.”

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