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Can farmers trust the tractor to deliver green scheme?

Red Tractor’s idea for a dedicated environment module is sound but the exclusion of producers from its development risks exacerbating power imbalances in supply chains, says Nick Hughes.

The Red Tractor assurance scheme is no stranger to coming under attack. In 2018, the scheme – operated by Assured British Standards – was engulfed in a series of scandals including alleged animal welfare breaches at a Red Tractor-assured pig farm in Bedfordshire. For a nervous few months, the credibility of the campaign slogan, ‘Trust the Tractor’, was hanging by a thread.

The scheme survived with its reputation just about intact but more recently has faced criticism from closer to home, specifically from producers who say they have been locked out of the development of a new, dedicated environment module.

The ‘greener farms commitment’ is designed to sit outside of Red Tractor’s core standards with its own distinct label and a focus on carbon footprinting, soil management, nutrient management, waste management and biodiversity. The detail for each of the commitments is currently being scrutinised by Red Tractor’s technical approval process ahead of a planned launch in April next year.

Sheep industry representatives, however, have accused Red Tractor of forcing its vision for environmentally focused farming onto producers, while other producer bodies have expressed concern over the lack of consultation over the new green module.

Farming groups are mobilising for action. Last week, the NFU Council unanimously agreed to the creation of two critical reviews into how farm assurance schemes operate in England and Wales, and whether they provide value for producers. The first will examine the governance of Red Tractor; the second will look more widely at farm assurance. Once again, the tractor finds itself fighting for its reputation.

Green veneer

For years, Red Tractor has formed the basis for buying and sourcing specifications for major supermarkets, household name brands and foodservice operators. When Footprint carried out a survey into the provenance of meat back in 2021 many larger caterers and restaurant chains reported sourcing large volumes of beef, lamb, pork and chicken certified to Red Tractor standards.

Speaking with businesses over the years, Red Tractor is often the first scheme mentioned when the discussion turns to sustainable sourcing of meat.

For some members of the public too, the logo already carries a green veneer despite environmental and welfare standards being only marginally higher than the UK legal baseline in many areas (which itself is higher than in many overseas markets), and well short of standards such as organic.

In this respect the development of a dedicated environment module to sit alongside the core standards is to be welcomed, particularly if it helps solve complex challenges such as generating consistent farm-level footprinting data.

However it’s hard to assess the level of ambition of the commitment in the absence of technical details which have yet to be made public.

There must also be concern that it adds yet another layer of complexity and confusion to an already crowded certification landscape. How will the label add value beyond that already offered by an established sustainability marque such as Leaf for example?

Moreover, the way in which the module has been developed should sound alarm bells across the food chain. Producers have already complained about being locked out of the process and from the statement on Red Tractor’s own website it’s clear that this has been a largely retailer-led initiative, designed to simplify the assurance process for grocers. “The greener farms commitment [….] has the full support of businesses represented by the British Retail Consortium,” the statement reads, before listing supportive comments from five leading supermarkets, including Tesco.

Explaining the rationale behind retailer support for the scheme, the BRC’s Andrew Opie said: “Retailers are under increasing pressure to disclose how their sourcing policies promote positive management of soil, water and biodiversity both to consumers and investors. The new Red Tractor greener farms commitment optional module offers the opportunity for farmers to deliver that assurance in a consistent, efficient scheme.”

Red Tractor CEO Jim Moseley added that farmers would benefit from “a consistent framework to talk about their environmental credentials” and a reduced burden of audits against various different schemes including customers’ own bespoke programmes.

Command and control

Yet it still feels like the kind of top-down, command and control approach that the burgeoning regenerative farming movement is seeking to change.

A new Footprint report on regenerative agriculture explores how the regenerative movement has historically sought to reset power relations within food supply chains, shifting from a state of top-down control in which buyers dictate to growers the terms of production, to a more collaborative, bottom-up approach based on the farmer’s specific context. Buyers are also expected to provide financial support to farmers transitioning to regenerative approaches rather than expect environmental benefits to be delivered for free.

A recent Table paper, however, cautioned that growing interest in regenerative agriculture from large multinational businesses is potentially changing what it means to practice the discipline “with greater emphasis being placed on measurement, accreditation and marketing, and less on its credentials as a farmer-led movement organised around the redistribution of power in the food system”.

Unlike its core standards, Red Tractor says the new commitment 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”. It also says the module has been designed to align with Defra’s sustainable farming incentive.

Yet the exclusion of producers from its development does not suggest the voice of the farmer will be on a par with that of their corporate customer. Indeed, for all its worthy intentions, the greener farms commitment looks suspiciously like an attempt by large businesses to exert greater control over the means of production. It may be voluntary in name, but the scheme is likely to be in effect mandatory for those farmers wanting to supply the big retailers.

Some element of standardisation in measuring environmental impact is necessary to avoid accusations of greenwashing. But a prescriptive green scheme that locks in existing power imbalances and locks out farmers who wish to plough their own furrow cannot be expected to deliver the step change in sustainable agriculture we need.