Red Tractor has set out plans to add an environmental module to its assurance scheme from next year, in a move that has already received some criticism from within the farming sector.
Red Tractor’s main Board has set a firm timetable to make its Greener Farms Commitment (GFC) available from April 1, 2024.
GFC is a voluntary addition which will operate very differently from its typical core standards. It will enable 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; and 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.
The GFC will have its own logo, enabling farmers and British agriculture to demonstrate their environmental credentials to consumers, whilst also differentiating the high quality of British products compared to international competition, Red Tractor said.
However, the announcement, which includes a number of supportive comments from retailers, has proved controversial with Red Tractor accused of not consulting with farmers and their representatives on the move.
NFU deputy president Tom Bradshaw said: “The NFU have not been involved with the development of the bolt-on module. I know some are reading the statement and wilfully assuming that we have.”
Red Tractor has been working on this environment module since 2020, recognising, it said, that the pressure on Retail, Out Of Home (OOH) operators and brands to source their primary produce more sustainably, could lead to a multitude of audit demands on the supply chain and particularly farmers.
From April 1m 2024, the scheme will be open to the supply chain across all sectors where members are already certified against Red Tractor’s core standards.
However, the GFC is designed to be a very different experience for farmers who choose to take part. It 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.
Red Tractor is setting up a dedicated Development Advisory Panel (DAP) to oversee the detail, operation, and evolution of the GFC. It will give feedback on the technical content of the module before it is finalised and published.
The DAP will include representation from across the supply chain including experts from Red Tractor’s Sector Boards and Technical Advisory Committees, plus third-party expertise where required.
Red Tractor CEO, Jim Moseley said: “We’re providing the supply chain with a definitive timetable for making the Greener Farms Commitment available on April 1 next year. With support from so many major retailers, the sector has a unique opportunity to make this common industry approach work.
“The initiative takes a new approach which will offer benefits to everyone. It gives Red Tractor farmers a new way of differentiating their product and a consistent framework to talk about their environmental credentials.
“The GFC is designed to protect farmers from future audit demands, costs and complexity. While some farmers may not be facing these questions from their customers yet, there is clear evidence from some agricultural sectors that alternative schemes have added cost, duplication and complexity for Red Tractor farmers.”
“For processors and packers, the common industry approach should reduce the need for a multitude of product lines to be segregated, which could be substantial if customers start to develop their own bespoke programmes. For retailers, out of home operators and brands, the GFC provides the evidence they need to show that their sourcing strategies are from farmers committed to looking after the environment.”
The Greener Farms Commitment has the ‘full support’ of businesses represented by the British Retail Consortium (BRC), Red Tractor said.
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. Farmers in other countries are already embarking on similar schemes but we feel the Red Tractor scheme puts British farmers in the strongest position to demonstrate their credentials alongside quality and provenance to British consumers.”
The announcement was accompanied by supportive comments from Sainsbury’s, M&S, Tesco and Morrisons.
Gavin Hodgson, Director of Agriculture at Sainsbury’s said: “Sainsbury’s is very supportive of initiatives to drive forward work in the sustainability space and sees Red Tractor Greener Farms Commitment as a positive step to giving farmers giving farmers a framework to develop and make real progress.”
But farmers appear suspicious about the move, particularly given the apparent lack of consultation with the NFU and other bodies.
Commenting on X, Leicestershire farmer Joe Stanley said: “I’ve always staunchly defended Red Tractor. But if the reality of this is as reported, they’ve overstepped a line in attempting – evasively – to force farmers to give away natural capital and data, which the supply chain should be paying for.
“No mention of collaboration or consultation with farming organisations, and framed as a fait accompli.”
Yorkshire pig producer Anna Longthorp said: “So disappointing- one of my main waving of the flags for Red Tractor is how they consult industry first THOROUGHLY to make sure what they’re doing is right in terms of welfare, environment and everything in between. Hoping this is acknowledged as the massive cock up it is swiftly!”
Arable farmer Andrew Watts said: “When has Red Tractor produced a premium? I fear this just loads all the cost onto producers? Happy to be proved wrong.”
North West farmer Liz Hoggarth said the GFC could cost her business £9,000 per year. “What return will I get on my investment please, Red Tractor?” she asked, expressing concern that NFU was not part of the consultation.
But NFU president Minette Batters replied: “It’s my understanding that the consultation starts now. Whether we like it or not sustainability is becoming the license to trade, but there MUST be a premium and that premium must come back to the farm gate.”